Validating the dreams of hundreds of Latino youth one role model at a time.
We often tell our youth to follow their dreams, but for many in the United States, the road to accomplishing those dreams is often riddled with adversity. For Hispanic students, in particular, the odds are often stacked against them due to economic disparities, and the lack of educational equality.
According to the 2015 Fact Book on The Condition of Latinos in Education, Hispanic children, along with African Americans, were more likely to live in poverty than others. In 2012, 33% of Hispanic families with children under 18 lived below the poverty level, compared to African American (39%), Asian (12%), and White families (13%).
What if disadvantages were transformed into opportunities by exposing Hispanic youth to more Hispanic professional role models? Could seeing adults from the same cultural origins provide them with hope for their respective future? Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse believes that this concept can change the trajectory for many Hispanic students, and her organization Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance & Achievement (HISPA) is well on its way to proving it can be done. I caught up with Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse during a HISPA coordinated “Imagine Day” at Verizon’s corporate headquarters and our discussion revealed the important work HISPA is doing for Hispanic youth.
As we began our discussion, I had one important question for Dr. Diaz-Claisse: “Why does this matter?” Her response was heartfelt, self-assured, and came from a familiar place. She responded “This matters because 30% of students in public school are of Latino heritage. They need to validate their dreams by meeting and learning about the stories of Latino role models.”
Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse is the President and Chief Executive Officer of HISPA and shared HISPA’s mission “to mobilize professionals to serve as active role models in schools and educational programs in their communities.” HISPA’s three-pronged approach includes a Role Model Program, Corporate Visits, and Youth Conferences; all of which provide students with varying degrees of exposure to professionals of Hispanic descent, and further reinforces the validity of students’ dreams by experiencing their potential first-hand.
According to HISPA’s 2015-2016 Annual Review, the impact is palpable with 87% of its students who participated in HISPA’s Role Model Program reported being inspired to do better in their classes, and 100% said it made them more interested in continuing an education in STEM.
A surprising fact is that sometimes it only takes one person to validate your dreams for them to come true.
Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse
As we settled into our dialogue, Dr. Diaz-Claisse shared her own journey as an undergraduate student, when she often wondered if she had what it took to earn her desired degree in Mathematics. While attending university, she met someone from her same community and shared a similar background, and they offered her proof and validation that her dreams could come true. She strongly believes that providing students with role models in different ways, whether it’s inviting professionals to schools, bringing students on corporate visits or hosting students in a university setting, often serves as an “a-ha!” moment for these students—a glimpse into what their future may hold for them.
I witnessed this transformation firsthand while observing two students in attendance at the recent Imagine Day hosted by Verizon. I asked each of the students the same questions, at the beginning of the day and at the end. I captured the journey of Alejandra Piedrasanta, 14 , whose perception was changed as a result of the Imagine Day event in a previous article
Jancely Alarcon, 14, also attended the event. When I asked Jancely the same question—“Would you consider a career in science or technology?”—she responded, “I want to be a doctor. And that counts as science, right?” After spending the day exploring the many options within STEM at Imagine Day, Jancely was still determined to be a doctor, but it also opened her eyes to other fields within STEM. “I still want to be a doctor, but I learned about so much cool technology today that I would totally consider a career in technology.”
The impact on having exposure to role models and mentors is obvious and HISPA’s mobilizing to change the statistics. According to HISPA’s website, HISPA has mobilized 2,500 volunteers, reached more than 7,000 students, and worked with about 100 organizations. However, the statistics regarding Hispanic students are still daunting. The Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that 12% of 18- to 24-year-old Hispanics have dropped out of high school, compared with 7% of blacks, 5% of whites, and 1% of Asians. Another important statistic from the Pew Research Center indicates that occupationally, “Latinos have very low representation in high-skill occupations such as architecture and engineering, legal, computer and mathematical science, health care, and life, physical and social sciences.” Confounding statistics like these are what drives HISPA’s Executive Board and volunteers to give back to their communities as often and as intensely as possible.
I asked Dr. Diaz-Claisse “If you could speak face to face with anyone about this issue, who would it be?” She responded, “I would speak to a corporate CEO.” In short, Dr. Diaz-Claisse is calling on Corporate America’s C-Suite to not only acknowledge the need for a diverse workforce , but also to respond with a sense of urgency by funding programs like HISPA. HISPA and similar programs in the U.S. require funding and adequate resources in order to be successful. And with those two ingredients, Dr. Diaz-Claisse believes her program can be replicated with high rates of success.
Many corporations are already joining the conversation. In a recent LinkedIN post by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam titled Getting Everybody on the Field to Win in the Digital Economy, he specifically addressed Verizon’s approach to diversity and the digital divide. He wrote, ”I believe the key to bridging that talent gap is bringing more women and diverse populations into technical fields. That’s why Verizon invests so much in educating our employees, closing the digital divide for underserved communities through our Verizon Innovative Learning program, and raising awareness of the possibilities of STEM careers among women and minorities through efforts like Women In Tech NYC and our #weneedmore campaign.”