20-20: Building Access, Engaged Learning and Excellence

March 9, 2009


20-20: Building Access, Engaged Learning and Excellence

Theme: Access & Success

Diana Natalicio
Constituent Group:

I am honored to have been asked to write an essay for inclusion in the collection recognizing the 20th Anniversary of Campus Compact. I am also very pleased to have this opportunity to share with you how the University of Texas at El Paso, the institution that I have been privileged to serve as president for nearly 20 years, has become a model for higher education engagement with its surrounding community. UTEP’s community is El Paso, Texas; and the University, with an enrollment of nearly 20,000 students, is located just a few hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexico border.

During the past 20 years, UTEP has learned many important lessons from its civic engagement. Among them:

  • Universities can create access to higher education for non-traditional groups while simultaneously reinforcing their commitment to excellence in education and research.
  • To be effective community partners, universities must be “context-sensitive,” that is, to be aware of, understand and respect the communities in which they live and work.
  • Universities have a special responsibility to respond to the needs of their surrounding communities, particularly through K-16 initiatives and in economically distressed areas.
  • Although risk-taking is unavoidable as new collaborative lines open to previously underserved communities, these risks are manageable and offer great opportunities for institutional learning.
  • There are enormous reciprocal benefits to be derived from university engagement.

When I came to El Paso in 1971 as a faculty member in the Department of Languages and Linguistics, the city was much smaller than it is now, with a population of about 320,000, compared to nearly 700,000 today. Although the Census Bureau was not yet collecting data on Hispanics, surveys conducted as part of the 1970 census indicated that El Paso was approximately 55 percent Hispanic. At $7,368, El Paso’s per capita income was lower than that of Texas and the nation as a whole, although the 1970 disparity was not as great as it is today.1

Since its founding in 1914 as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, UTEP has always served a regional population, drawing most of its students from far west Texas and northern Mexico. When I arrived, however, UTEP didn’t look very much like the surrounding community. Like the Census Bureau, UTEP didn’t gather data in 1971 on the proportion of our student population that was Hispanic. However, when we did begin such data collection in 1978, only 38 percent of UTEP’s students were reported to be Hispanic, while the Hispanic segment of the city’s population had risen to 60 percent.

By the late 1980s, UTEP developed a plan to recruit a student population that better mirrored the demographics of the region. We believed that talent was everywhere in the community, and that it was our responsibility to create opportunities for that talent to be developed. University representatives went into all the county’s high schools to provide information about higher education in general and UTEP in particular. We met many young people who never dreamed that college could be an option for them; and we knew that we would have to reach them as early as possible so that they could begin to think about and prepare for college. We developed partnerships with area schools and community organizations to create such initiatives as our Mother-Daughter program, which targets sixth-grade Hispanic girls who are invited to the campus with their mothers to participate in activities designed to help raise educational aspirations. Since the program began in the mid-1980s, nearly 100% of the girls have successfully completed high school, and many of them have enrolled in and graduated from UTEP, as have several of their mothers. And, we have since begun a father-son program.

Our involvement in the Mother-Daughter program and other outreach efforts helped us recognize the need for broad-based systemic work to raise both educational expectations and achievement in El Paso area schools, so that seniors would aspire to and be better prepared for college-level work. We also recognized that we operate in a “closed loop” wherein approximately 80% of UTEP’s 20,000 students are graduates of El Paso County schools, and two-thirds of the teachers in those schools are graduates of UTEP. In this context, it was easy to conclude that trying to blame each other for low educational attainment in this region was a futile exercise, and that partnerships among K-16 educational institutions were going to be critical to our success.

In 1991, UTEP joined with the El Paso Community College; the three largest school districts in El Paso County; Region 19 Education Service Center, representing the six small rural districts in the county; both City and County governments; the Greater El Paso, Black, and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce; and a community group, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization (EPISO), to form the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, which is housed on the UTEP campus and works to achieve three ambitious goals:

  • To ensure academic success for all students, K-16;
  • To ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed in a four-year college or university; and
  • To close achievement gaps across demographic groups.

The Collaborative has received major funding from numerous sources, including the National Science Foundation’s Urban Systemic Initiative and Math/Science Partnership programs, for its work to improve El Paso students’ achievement in mathematics and science. It has also offered programs that target school leaders?superintendents, principals, and counselors?to ensure that these critical team members recognize and encourage all students’ potential for high academic achievement. In addition, UTEP has participated actively in the simultaneous reform of its teacher preparation programs, which are now strongly field-based.

Our K-16 educational reform efforts seem to be working. Standardized test scores are higher, and more students are planning to attend college. State figures indicate that “the percentage of graduates telling their schools they’re going to college ranges from the mid-70s to high 90s throughout the county.”2 The percentages of students taking the SAT or ACT and completing Advanced Placement courses have also risen dramatically.3 These figures are impressive in a county in which, according to the 2000 Census, only 16.6 % of the population reported holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, more than 34% reported less than a high school education, and more than 21% less than ninth grade.

More young El Pasoans are now heading for college, most of them to UTEP. That’s very good, but it’s not enough. The next step is to ensure that their improved access to higher education also leads to successful outcomes, which for most students is completion of an undergraduate degree and competitiveness for success in a career or post-graduate education. Recognizing that most UTEP attrition occurred between freshman and sophomore years, we began in the early 1990s to develop programs that would help our largely first-generation college student population make a more successful transition to the University. With support from NSF’s Model Institutions for Excellence (MIE) program, we developed and pilot-tested a program in science and engineering that expanded orientation to the University, strengthened academic advising, created learning communities by clustering students in core courses, and established a mathematics and science study center on campus for our largely commuter-student population.

By the end of the decade, the success of the MIE program led to its institutionalization across the campus. A core component of the program is the entering student seminar, which provides content focused on a variety of topics that reflect the broad range of UTEP faculty and staff expertise, structured practice in using higher level reasoning skills, and an introduction to the services of the University. UTEP’s entering student program has greatly improved student retention on our campus and received national recognition for its success.

In addition to focusing our attention on the first year of enrollment, we have developed during the past several years strong pedagogies to reinforce students’ engagement throughout their undergraduate experience. Two of these pedagogies?undergraduate research experiences and service learning?appear to be especially effective.

Much of the literature on student success suggests the importance of engaging students in activities on campus. But most UTEP students have to work to pay for their education and help support their families. So we have placed a high priority on creating employment opportunities on the campus that are related to students’ academic programs. Work in research laboratories offers one such set of opportunities for students to “earn while they learn.” Undergraduate research opportunities began in the 1970s via the NIH Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) program, and were later expanded as an integral part of the NSF-funded MIE and Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) programs. Faculty members are also encouraged to build student support into their budgets for investigator-initiated research projects.

Grant funding and research infrastructure are important factors in creating research experiences for undergraduates, but the real keys to their success are faculty mentors who understand and are fully committed to integrating their research and teaching, and to building the skills and self-confidence of their students. They invite students to co-author papers with them and present the results of their research at national and regional meetings. In many cases, they create vertically integrated research teams, called Affinity Groups, which include faculty members, Ph.D. students, master’s-level students, undergraduates with various levels of experience, and sometimes high school students, with each level providing role models for the next.

The presence of doctoral students in colleges across the UTEP campus is new and represents another of the critical building blocks in our strategy to become a catalyst for human and economic development in the surrounding region. Our first doctoral program, in geology, was approved in 1974, a few years after I came to UTEP. We were then classified by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board as a “single-doctoral degree granting institution” until 1989, when we were successful in gaining authorization to offer a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. Since that time we have added doctoral programs in all six academic colleges, as well as interdisciplinary degrees in Environmental Science and Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering. To date, 13 programs have been authorized and more are in various stages of development. In addition to attracting students from throughout the U.S. and internationally, these doctoral programs offer a full range of graduate education opportunities to area residents who may be place-bound because of employment and family responsibilities. Their collective intellectual capital also serves as a valuable resource to individuals and organizations in the region.

Doctoral programs also contribute to the robust research infrastructure that enables UTEP to recruit and retain highly competitive research faculty. These faculty members serve as role models who encourage undergraduates not only to complete their bachelor’s degrees but to go on to graduate school. UTEP ranks among the top ten universities nationally in the number of Hispanic bachelor’s graduates who complete Ph.D. degrees. Despite the relatively short history of our doctoral programs, UTEP is already ranked among the top ten U.S. universities in awarding science and engineering Ph.D.’s to Hispanics. This achievement is both a reflection of the serious national under-representation of Hispanics in doctoral programs, as well as a validation of UTEP’s potential to become a major contributor to the development of an enlarged pool of Hispanic Ph.D.’s who will help change the demographic profile of many professions, including the U.S. professoriate.

Service-learning programs and civic engagement opportunities are also an important part of our campus-community relationships. It is often suggested that commuting students are less likely to have time or inclination to engage in service-learning programs. Quite the opposite appears to be the case at UTEP. Our students’ strong stake in and commitment to the region appear to motivate them to participate: more than half of UTEP students have contributed quality time to community-based, nonprofit organizations and public schools through service-learning programs. Thanks to generous support from the Kellogg Foundation and a growing institutional culture of grant writing, UTEP established the Institute for Community-Based Teaching and Learning, which in 2000 became the university-wide Center for Civic Engagement.

The Center for Civic Engagement is an academic program, led by faculty and grounded in faculty members’ innovative teaching, which connects course requirements and partial course grades to community-based learning. The Center offers 10 structured service-learning programs, complete with presentations of service-learning options to classes, training, on-line registration, and organized reflection, in areas such as:

  • Tutoring in English-as-a-Second-Language and Citizenship classes;
  • Presenting at middle and high schools on such topics as interpersonal violence, voting and civic engagement, and pathways to college;
  • Observing area courtrooms to assess fair processes for all; and
  • Reading in elementary schools

Participation in these activities enables students to learn about their communities, discover talents and interests within themselves that they develop further, and respond to community needs with an ethic of service and engagement that they carry through their lives. Center for Civic Engagement figures show that students who opt for service learning match overall UTEP demographics, with a slight over-representation of Hispanic and female students. Course evaluations show that 37% of students indicate they might consider careers in the nonprofit, public service sector. The Center is now developing new service-learning programs in the areas of financial literacy and neighborhood revitalization. It also supports more sophisticated, community-based partnerships in survey research and technical assistance in areas such as accounting and web-design for nonprofit organizations.

During the past two years, UTEP has moved to institutionalize these new, curricular forms of campus-community collaboration. Tenure and Promotion policies were revised in 2000 to include criteria under both teaching and research (NOT service, which is traditionally undervalued in faculty incentive systems) that recognize peer-reviewable community-based work. Acknowledging that dependency on external grants was unhealthy for sustaining engagement and service-learning programs, UTEP funded a professional position for the Center for Civic Engagement’s Assistant Director and continues to support a course release for the faculty director.

Undergraduate research and civic engagement will contribute significantly to the success of another major new initiative at UTEP. Building on the positive results of our entering student program, we have now shifted attention to what we refer to as the “middle years” of enrollment. We are conducting in-depth analyses of the factors that contribute to student success and those that impede student progress toward degree completion. Some of those factors, such as health emergencies, job-related relocation, and family crises, are obviously external to us and beyond our control. Others, such as degree requirements and business practices, are controlled by the University and well within our capacity to review and reform. The most interesting challenges occur where university and student pressures collide: tuition increases required to preserve quality in the face of declining state support vs. price sensitivity and loan aversion of low-income students; or, budget constraints on the scheduling and frequency of course offerings vs. students’ demanding employment and family responsibilities. Managing these tensions, which inevitably arise as we pursue our goals of accessibility, affordability and excellence, will ultimately determine UTEP’s success in serving as a catalyst for change in this U.S.-Mexico border region.

Over the past two decades, UTEP has engaged in major institutional transformation. A university that once offered its alumni bumper stickers that read, “Harvard on the Border,” woke up to the reality of its surroundings and began earnest efforts to serve as an authentic and responsible catalyst for the human development of an undereducated and economically under-performing region. UTEP faculty and staff removed their blinders and began to address in their teaching and research the many challenges and opportunities of the region. What’s most interesting about this transformation has been that, in the process of serving this region and its population well, UTEP has achieved the national recognition to which its earlier pretensions aspired. Both UTEP and Campus Compact have a lot to celebrate on this 20th anniversary!

The significant contributions to this essay by my UTEP colleagues, Dr. Kathleen Staudt, Director of the Center for Civic Engagement, and Florence Dick of the Office of Research, are acknowledged and greatly appreciated.

1 In 1970 El Paso’s per capita income was three-quarters of the national per capita income; in 2000 it had dropped to about two-thirds of the national average. UTEP has made a strong commitment to help reverse that trend. back

2 Acosta, Gustavo Reveles. “More Seniors choose to attend college.” El Paso Times, May 20, 2006 back

3 The Ysleta Independent School District, one of the large districts in the County, now requires that students take either the SAT or ACT and even helps defray the cost of such tests for students with economic need. back

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