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How Mentoring Strengthens Latino Communities and Classrooms

Statistics indicate that, of all student subgroups, Hispanic males are least likely to stay in school.

In 2009, more than 61 percent of all associate’s or bachelor’s degrees earned by Hispanics were earned by females, and the percentage of those who attained a bachelor’s degree doubled from 8.4 percent in 1995 to 15 percent in 2010. That’s not the story for males, according to Victor Saenz, associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration. In fact, he said, many have described Hispanic males’ diminishing presence in the education system as a “crisis.”

At the College of Education, a network of dedicated researchers, mentors and students are working to fix that — and have been — for five years.

Victor Saenz

Victor B. Sáenz, Ph.D.

Their solution is called Project M.A.L.E.S. (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success). The brainchild of Saenz and his colleagues Luis Ponjuan and William Serrata, Project M.A.L.E.S. is a research-informed network of undergraduate males who mentor Hispanic high school males, as well as graduate Hispanic males who mentor undergraduate males. The program promotes and shares research on the educational experiences of men of color. Research, including that of Saenz, shows that mentoring programs like this improve the odds that students will stay in the education pipeline.

“They just need information, emotional support and someone to guide them on what’s really a very complicated path. They need mentors,” said Saenz, who also founded The University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

And mentorship is exactly what Project M.A.L.E.S. provides.

“Latino males have many unique challenges when it comes to pursuing an education — in trying to fulfill what it means to be a ‘man’ in Latino culture, many of them quit school as soon as they’re able to work,” said Mike Gutierrez, the program’s mentoring coordinator and an adviser at Austin Community College. “If they don’t know what it takes to get in college, for example, they may be really hesitant to ask questions … These are cultural factors that not just everybody understands.”

This cultural influence is something Gutierrez understands first-hand. Growing up, he experienced a lot of the same things M.A.L.E.S mentees face, and was a mentor himself before becoming the mentor coordinator for the program.

Now, Gutierrez is working on his second master’s degree.

“I couldn’t have done it without a lot of great people who thought I was worth the trouble and worth helping,” he said.

This premise of having a supporter, encourager and mentor is what has made the greatest impact on the individuals involved, especially past mentors who share similar experiences with their mentees.

“When it comes to Dr. Saenz’s scholarship, I am the research. I’ve faced the challenges, and I can tell you from experience that the kind of work Project M.A.L.E.S does is desperately needed,” said Jorge Segovia, a former mentor and now the curriculum and community engagement coordinator for the program. “The current U.S. school system isn’t designed to support African American and Hispanic student success. To make it through, these groups need good mentors … Lots of caring people stepped in and helped me, and I feel a strong obligation to return the favor.”

That feeling of paying it forward has paid off. In the past five years, Project M.A.L.E.S. has gained national attention and multiple invitations to Saenz from the White House, as well as several state and local honors.

Luis Urrieta

Luis Urrieta, Jr., Ph.D.

This year, the program obtained approval for a service-learning course through the College of Liberal Arts that anchors undergraduate mentors’ training in a formal academic class. The new course, titled “Instructing Males Through Peer Advising College Tracks,” launched this past fall. It gives students an opportunity to learn about public service, and to work with Central Texas community leaders. Students also receive mentor training, explore literature on the unique challenges that men of color face, and put their mentoring skills to the test in Austin area schools.

“We were the first and are the most prominent university-based, research-informed program that focuses on the mentoring and study of Latino males,” said Saenz, “and we take that responsibility very seriously. Mentoring is in our organization’s name and it’s what we’re about.”

Like Saenz, College of Education Associate Professor Luis Urrieta is also passionate about using mentoring to help Latino youth. His focus is on teaching young Latinos about the benefits of their social and cultural knowledge, and how it can be the key to their success.

“In the U.S. education system, we too often dismiss the fact that learning includes all of a child’s environments and multiple ways of knowing and being, not just the structured, limited activities that occur in a classroom,” said Urrieta, himself the son of Mexican immigrants from rural Michoacán. “I want to transform current education practices by figuring out how these cultural practices and traditions can complement formal Western education.”

The program, called Cultura en Acción, was created in Austin two years ago. UT student volunteers spend one afternoon each week with third, fourth and fifth graders at Austin area schools.

For a lot of the mentors, the experience becomes more than just a volunteer opportunity, with the benefits of the program expanding beyond Austin. Urrieta captured national attention for his work by receiving a Cesar E. Chavez Champions of Change award from the White House last year.

“Dr. Urrieta really stresses that you’re not there to fulfill an obligation or gain an experience that you can just put on your resume,” said Ana Isabel Fernandez De Alb, a former mentor in the program and a graduate student in Mexican American Studies. “As a mentor, you develop rapport with the children that allows them to talk freely about crossing the border and visiting their families in Mexico, for example, and that’s something that they may not share with almost anyone else.”

For both Project M.A.L.E.S. and Cultura en Acción, students, researchers, faculty members and volunteers at the College of Education are dedicated to making a difference – one mentoring relationship at a time.

Credit: Kay Randall for research and collaboration on this article.

Op-ed by Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Associate Professor, Curriculum and Instruction

Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb

In the U.S. and many other developed countries, young females are entering college at higher rates than males and are more likely to graduate and earn a degree. Even so, we certainly can’t say that gender inequality is no longer a problem.

Reality is that women remain less likely than men to enter many science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields in college, a factor that contributes to their relatively lower occupational earnings. The under-representation of women in STEM fields is particularly problematic given the rapid growth of STEM-related job sectors and the national need for more workers with STEM degrees and skills.

So why aren’t more women taking STEM classes and earning college degrees in STEM subjects?

An explanation still commonly heard is that females’ math and science skills and achievement are inferior to males’ and, consequently, they’re not as qualified. Recent research offers strong empirical evidence that refutes this conventional wisdom, though.

According to research, female students consistently earn higher grades in math and science K-12 classes and take advanced courses at the same rates as males. While there remains a small male advantage on some standardized math and science exams, this minor disparity doesn’t begin to explain the large gender gap in who chooses STEM fields in college and beyond.

It can be tempting to take a very narrow view of this issue. One might say that since no one is actively keeping young college women from entering STEM fields, then they have the same opportunity to pursue these fields as men. Or, to put it differently, if young women have the same (or better) chances of going to college as young men and they happen to choose non-STEM fields, then this is simply a matter of choice, right?

While it’s appealing in its simplicity, such a narrow perspective ignores the many ways society continues to limit women’s educational choices by telling them math and science aren’t feminine and that those subjects are really better suited to men and boys.

My own research addresses this topic and finds that young women continue to be subjected to biases and stereotypes about their math ability. Numerous other researchers in education, sociology, and psychology have gathered evidence that girls receive less encouragement from parents and peers to pursue STEM fields, and that they are continuously exposed to social messages (including those from the media) about their presumed inferiority to boys. These messages may be subtle but are nonetheless powerful – indeed, their less overt nature arguably makes them more effective.

Anyone can point to a single instance of bias, such as a teacher always calling on boys in math class before calling on girls, and argue that it’s unintentional and not significant enough to worry about. Yet these kinds of experiences begin early at school and in the home, and they continue to accumulate over many years.

Therefore, if we want to increase the number of women who enter and are successful in STEM fields, we have to think hard about how individuals’ choices are not nearly as free as we might want to believe. Rather, the choices that young women make are severely constrained by social and cultural forces that shape what they think is possible.

The good news is that there are things we can do to change how girls view their future possibilities, such as providing more opportunities for them to interact with positive female role models, and educating current and future math and science teachers about how to create more gender equitable classrooms. Also, we could all do our part to discourage the constant social dialogue about how “boys and girls are just so different.”

If we accomplish these changes, we can give girls and young women an opportunity to see their educational and occupational futures as not fundamentally dictated by their gender, but open to endless possibilities.




College of Education faculty have expertise in areas as wide-ranging as school administration, behavioral health, and exercise physiology – because of their landmark research and reputations as top scholars, they’re often tapped by state and national media. Check out the coverage our faculty recently received on topics such as school finance and academic challenges facing males of color.


Christopher Brown

“Despite Campaign Focus Pre-K Won’t Likely Expand Soon”


“Pre-K is one piece of a larger puzzle that we need to think about. As we focus on the K-12 system and the larger debate, I hope we don’t forget the children who aren’t enrolled, but are a part of our state who need a high quality education.”



Kevin Cokley

“Obama: Boys teased for ‘acting white'”


“What the President just described is known in academic circles as the Ogbu Thesis. It’s named for researcher John Ogbu, who popularized the belief that Black youth shun educational achievement as a way of proving their racial authenticity. Scholars like the University of Texas’s Kevin Cokley have said that issues of racial identity and educational achievement are far more complicated than Ogbu initially imagined.”



Greg Vincent and Project MALES

“Addressing the Crisis Among Men of Color in Higher Education”​


“The abysmal underrepresentation of men of color on college campuses is symptomatic of admissions processes, which have fallen under strict scrutiny. It is also indicative of the larger lack of research on, support for and access to higher education for young men of color.”


Victor Saenz

Victor Saenz

Two University of Texas at Austin College of Education research groups have been included in a response to a task force report on the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, a project established by President Obama. My Brother’s Keeper has a goal of bringing together private sector and philanthropic organizations to improve life outcomes for boys and young men of color.

The response addresses a recently-released task force report Get Adobe Reader about the initiative and is a joint effort of seven university-based research centers:

  • Project MALES and the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color (UT Austin)
  • The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Minority Male Community College Collaboration (San Diego State University)
  • Morehouse Research Institute (Morehouse College)
  • Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center on the African American Male (The Ohio State University)
  • UCLA Black Male Institute (University of California, Los Angeles)
  • Wisconsin’s Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The centers focus on the study of factors that help and limit educational, social, and occupational opportunities for boys and young men of color.

Dr. Victor Saenz, an associate professor in the UT Austin College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration, is co-founder and executive director of Project MALES as well as the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color.

Below is the task force report that was issued:

As Black and Latino male professors and research center directors, we salute President Obama as well as the many philanthropic and private sector funders for their commitment to improving the conditions of our nation’s boys and young men of color.

The task force report offers a commendable articulation of challenges and opportunities for young men of color and various agents who play some role in their life outcomes. Recommendations offered therein are appropriately informed by research from a range of academic disciplines.

As our nation prepares to enact recommendations from the task force, we call for programs, policies, and services that are guided by research and documented effectiveness. We caution, for example, against the widespread replication of mentoring programs that haphazardly match young men with adults, as evidence concerning the outcomes of such programs is mixed. Moreover, we believe interventions should focus on better understanding and remedying systemic inequities in policies, schooling and social practices, and structures that persistently undermine the success of boys and men of color. More significant investment in the dissemination of existing research on what works, as well as funding new studies on promising policies and practices, would help ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper and the Americans it aims to effectively serve.

We urge private foundations, federal funding agencies (i.e., the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health), and other entities that invest in projects associated with My Brother’s Keeper to take seriously the evidence base of initiatives that are proposed, as well as rigorous evaluations of newly funded projects. Funds are needed to facilitate productive collaborations among research centers such as ours, and to connect researchers with agents who lead organizations and initiatives for young men of color across our nation. The success of My Brother’s Keeper depends heavily on the quality of research produced about its effectiveness. Ultimately, strong cultures of evidence and efficacy should guide all programs, services, and interventions associated with the initiative.

My Brother’s Keeper affords our country an important opportunity to reframe hopeless, deficit-oriented narratives about boys and young men of color, schools that educate them, and communities in which they live. We are hopeful that the initiative will produce replicable models of success, but doing so requires more investment in studies of what works. To ensure the success of My Brother’s Keeper, our research centers stand ready to serve as resources to its funders and the Obama Administration.

Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Catherine Riegle-Crumb

Math and science education expert Catherine Riegle-Crumb has received a National Science Foundation grant to take an unprecedented look at gender and racial/ethnic inequalities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

The funding will allow her to study student participation – broken down by gender and ethnic/racial subgroups – in STEM courses from sixth grade through college. Her findings should provide a clearer picture of the education experiences of groups that tend to be poorly represented in STEM classes, college majors, and careers.

Riegle-Crumb’s research will focus not only on students’ actual STEM course involvement and achievement but also on intended attainment. Examining how patterns of academic achievement and social inclusion vary over several years between subgroups may help explain disparities in STEM participation.

The project will draw on five large-scale and longitudinal datasets – three that are nationally representative and two that were collected in Texas and include large samples of Hispanic students. According to Riegle-Crumb this will be the first study of its kind, one that employs big data to investigate the intersection of race/ethnicity, gender, and STEM education.

“It will offer a comprehensive description and analysis of STEM inequality that’s previously been unavailable,” said Riegle-Crumb, an associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.



College of Education faculty and students are nationally known for their landmark research on topics like depression, exercise physiology, autism, at-risk student populations, and learning disabilities. Their wide-ranging expertise frequently is tapped by the media – from the New York Times to NPR and The Texas Tribune. Check out this sample of the coverage our top-ranked college has garnered.

New York Times
Victor Saenz
“A Degree Goal: To Close a Gender Gap That Favors Women”

“If half the population is systematically lagging behind the other half, that’s going to be a real drag on our ability to meet our goals and secure any kind of prosperity for our future.”

Julian Vasquez Heilig
“The ‘domino effect’ of school closings”

“What we used to call discrimination we now call civil rights. For example, we talked about how African American and Latino students performed on high stakes exams – now we talk about the gap as civil rights. Charter schools? We talk about those as civil rights.”

KNOW – UT Austin
College of Education Students Sergio Valverde, Stephen Galvan, Renae Greening
“Open Up and Say ‘Hook’em’: Student Athletic Trainers”

“It just gives you chills watching an athlete get back into their prime and knowing you were a part of that process.”

Chicago Tribune
Aaron Rochlen
“Do-it-yourself dads”

“If these at-home dads – and we’re talking about gay men and straight men – still view themselves as providers, they often adjust to the role just fine. The ones who do well don’t feel they have to conform to traditional gender models.”

Despite higher levels of engagement in the community college experience — from rarely skipping classes to accessing tutoring services more frequently — male students of color have lower academic outcomes than White male students who are significantly less engaged, according to a recent University of Texas at Austin report.

“Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges” was produced by the College of Education’s Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE).

It is based on responses from more than 453,000 students nationwide to the Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

“Despite Black and Hispanic males reporting higher aspirations to earn a community college certificate or degree than their White peers, only 5 percent of those who attend community colleges earn certificates or degrees in three years, as opposed to 32 percent of White males,” said Kay McClenney, CCCSE director. “Realities like this prompted us to look at what contributes to the achievement gaps and suggest ways community colleges can better support Black and Hispanic males’ success.”

Research consistently shows that in undergraduate education there is a positive correlation between students’ levels of engagement — with faculty members, other students and the subject matter — and their academic success, said McClenney. An engaged student tends to do things like meet with advisers to discuss career plans, work on projects with other students outside of class, spend hours rewriting and perfecting a research paper, and ask questions in class.

Among male students, Black males are the most engaged, followed by Hispanics, and White males are the least engaged of the three groups. This pattern is consistent across benchmarks and more than 10 years of CCCSE data. When it comes to achievement, the results are reversed — White males consistently have the highest grades and college completion rates, followed by Hispanics. Black males report the lowest outcomes.

“The findings don’t mean engagement isn’t beneficial for Black and Hispanic male students,” said McClenney. “They just signify there are additional factors contributing to these groups’ academic success or failure, and we really need to understand what those are.”
Using the center’s survey data and past scientific research, the report offers two major reasons for the lower academic outcomes: stereotype threat and college readiness.

Stereotype threat refers to what people experience when they are afraid of confirming society’s negative expectations of someone with their social identity (that identity could be based on race, ethnicity, gender, age or religion, for example).

“Even when the stereotyping is subtle and there are no bad intentions or active prejudice intended, stereotype threat can be triggered and have negative results,” said McClenney. “Research indicates this threat is a significant cause of minority underachievement in U.S. higher education.”

Regarding college readiness, the report states that Black and Hispanic students tend to start college needing significant help with academic skills development in multiple areas.

ACT data show, for example, that students of color are much less likely to meet ACT college readiness benchmarks. Around 16 percent of Black students meet the benchmark in reading, compared with 29 percent of Hispanic students and 54 percent of White students. About 14 percent of Black students meet the benchmark in math, compared with 30 percent of Hispanic students and 54 percent of White students.
“CCCSE data reveal that even higher levels of engagement of students of color can’t compensate for the effects of beginning college already well behind the starting gate in terms of academic readiness,” said McClenney.

To address these achievement gaps, the report recommends that community colleges must first acknowledge the reality that “systematic disparities in opportunity and privilege characterize the lives — and educational experiences — of people of color in American society.” It suggests colleges implement high-impact practices that will benefit all students, such as fostering personal connections, setting high expectations and offering high-quality instruction from very engaged faculty.

Colleges also are encouraged to:

  • regularly solicit student feedback.
  • gather and disaggregate data that accurately describe students’ educational experiences.
  • redesign developmental education.
  • boost cultural awareness and competence.
  • improve faculty and staff diversity.

In addition to examining student responses from the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, the report also used data from more than 30 student focus groups with Black, Hispanic and White males at community colleges and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society national convention, as well as six focus groups with community college faculty members and staffers.

“Aspirations to Achievement: Men of Color and Community Colleges” is part of a CCCSE initiative called “Improving Outcomes for Men of Color in Community Colleges” and is funded by the Kresge Foundation. The full report and a companion DVD of student focus groups can be downloaded at www.cccse.org.

The CCCSE is a research and service initiative in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration.

Dr. Gregory J. Vincent, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Educational Administration and UT Austin’s vice president for diversity and community, joined President Barack Obama on Feb. 27 at the White House for the introduction of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative.

Gregory J. Vincent, Ph.D.

Gregory J. Vincent, Ph.D.

Education, public sector and philanthropic leaders, including General Colin Powell, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Honorable Michael Bloomburg, also were on hand for the rollout.

The initiative will use proven tools that already are helping young men and boys of color in select communities reach their full potential and replicate those successful practices and programs on a large scale. To make this happen, the initiative has engaged the support of private philanthropies, governors, mayors, businesses, faith leaders and non-profit organizations. The President also has signed a presidential memorandum to create a federal government task force that will evaluate the efficacy of various intervention strategies so that all partners in the initiative will have a set of best practices to follow.

At UT Austin, Dr. Vincent has played a key role in establishing mentoring programs nationwide for young Black males through the work of the national fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and has been a leader in Communities in Schools’ X-Y Zone. X-Y Zone is a leadership development and peer support program that builds beneficial life skills in high school-age males of color.