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Roberto Montoya, AVP of Partner Success for Hispanic Serving Institutions at InsideTrack
September 14, 2023

A Q&A with InsideTrack’s Roberto Montoya, Assistant VP of Partner Success for HSI partnerships

Celebrating the critical role of HSIs in supporting Latine students across the country

In celebration of Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) week and the beginning of Latine/Hispanic Heritage Month, we sat down with Roberto Montoya, Associate Vice President of Partner Success at InsideTrack, to talk about all things HSI.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it ignited your passion for HSI education

A: So much of the way in which I think about servingness and HSIs is so deeply informed by my upbringing. I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the majority of folks identify as Hispanic, Chicana and Latine. I went to schools that were overwhelmingly Brown, Indigenous and Black. Thinking back, it was always curious to me that people would say to me, “You go to a diverse school,” but it was homogenous — 95% Brown. I think what they meant was that I went to a Brown school. What does it mean when you see so many folks that look like you? Even though there is so much diversity within our community, we got put together in one homogenous group.

Q: Can you talk more about your education path and how that got you to where you are?

A: Your own lived experience prepares you to do this type of work, understanding the importance of identity and identity performance. I am deeply interested in centering voices that are historically marginalized, erased and silenced.

Often, K-12 schooling is not that excited about curiosity. But I was really curious as a child. And because my schools were more interested in compliance, I was heavily disciplined. I hated schooling, but I loved learning. So I always knew that postsecondary education was in my future. My mother was underemployed and undereducated her entire life, yet she also cared deeply about education. She was really the foundation of the discipline I needed to succeed in school.

Despite growing up in poverty, I had a very dichotomous upbringing. I was raised in the barrios and also spent time with academics. My aunt was the first Latina who went to Harvard Law School. She became a law professor at the University of New Mexico and her husband, my tio, was a math professor. She helped me see that I belonged in college — and that the institution was better because I was there.

I went from a high school that was 95% Brown to a predominantly white college that was 95% white. I quickly realized how insulated and unprepared I was. Not just academically, but socially. And I rarely, if ever, saw myself in the curriculum.

How do we take all that to make sure institutions live up to their missions, visions and values? All the institutions I attended were Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), but all three were also emerging HSIs. That juxtaposition is why this work is so important. There is an ancestral call for me regarding serving work — that’s what has brought me to InsideTrack. I believe in my heart that institutions are not malicious, that they do want to do right by their learners. But you can’t wish in equity and serving outcomes. You have to work them in. And one of the best ways to do so is to provide wraparound support services to learners. And a great way to do that is through coaching.

Q: What is the role of HSIs in supporting Latine students and communities across the country?

A: It means everything. I didn’t have a Latino male professor until I was getting my doctorate. When I had my first educator who looked like me, the impact it had on my identity was immeasurable. Representation matters.

HSI designation is a pretty low bar. 25% of the student body has to identify as Hispanic, and 50% of those students have to be Pell-eligible. There are no accountability measures in terms of campus culture and  belonging, or requirements that the staff, leadership and professoriate reflect that number.

The concept of servingness is crucial. How do we capitalize the S in HSI? What does it mean to serve Latine learners? And what does it mean to have full-time/tenured professors who look like their students? Doing so would change and enable a sense of belonging that would reflect through the prism of dignity. What does it mean to have a dignified academic experience? Is there an indignity in never seeing a full-time professor that looks like you? These are questions practitioners and institutions must be asking.

The lack of educator diversity we see across higher ed is a civil rights issue. When HSIs get this enrollment designation, they need to be self-reflective and ask themselves, “What do we need to do to leverage this designation to create a responsive environment that enables success?”

Q: A research paper by Cheryl D. Ching, a PhD in Urban Education Policy, highlighted some of the deficit thinking that college administrators and faculty frequently have with regard to family and cultural ties of many Latine students. How can we better lean into understanding and appreciating the benefits that these connections have for Latine learners? In other words, how do we shift our thinking from a deficit mindset to an asset mindset and better support students?

A: Because Latine learners don’t see a lot of professors and staff who look like them, there’s a disconnect between understanding the lived experiences that we have. It’s incumbent upon faculty to use an asset frame to think about the diverse epistemologies of Latine learners.

HSIs only represent 19% of institutions in the country, nevertheless 67% of Latine learners go to these institutions. We are a very communal people. If HSIs lean into that, great. But there’s much work to do at HSIs. Nationally, only 24% of Latine adults have an associate degree or higher. Why? We have to explore that. Some of it is in the inequitable ways in which Latine learners experience their respective institutions.

Even when we’re doing research, there’s a way in which we frame and use proxy terms, like first-generation, linguistically diverse, low SES, underrepresented, etc. as deficits instead of assets. For example, if you hear an accent, you should be thinking “Oh, this person speaks at least two languages.” However, for Latine learners, multilingualism is not often seen as an asset. I remember vividly as a child when my mom would tell people that she speaks with an accent, but does not think with one.

Do a real assessment of your professoriate, your staff, and your policies, practices, and procedures. Ask how you can prepare professors and staff to hone an asset lens in the way they see learners, families and admissions. Some learners won’t go away to college because of deep familial ties — they say they can’t go far. How are we asking people to divorce themselves from the fabric of who they are, a way of being that is so deeply connected to family, community and elders?

Q: What more should we be thinking about or taking advantage of in terms of improving outcomes for Latine learners?

A: There isn’t necessarily anything missing. The real question should be more about what we can take advantage of. Title III and Title V grants don’t often have meaningful accountability measures built in, so a lot of the HSI grant work has been excessively race-neutral and hasn’t meaningfully changed outcomes. Elevating race neutrality doesn’t lend itself to social justice if you’re able to ignore that as an institution.

As my dear colleague Gina Ann Garcia often states, becoming an HSI is a racialized designation, and yet Hispanic/Latinx/Latine are not federally considered a racialized category writ large— we’re considered an ethnicity. There are many Latine people that don’t identify as white or have Indigenous tribal affiliations, and yet there are Latine folks who are multi-racial. This complexity about race and ethnicity often obscures our HSI policy work. Additionally, HSI work must also elevate the experiences and differentiated needs of Afro-Latinos.

That is not to say there is not great work being done. We have begun to normalize and organize around serving, but we haven’t fully operationalized and changed institutional policies, practices and procedures regarding HSI servingness with clear and meaningful accountability measures— and we need to immediately, because we’re simply not seeing the success outcomes we should.

Q: How can these learnings be applied to HSIs and beyond, across higher education?

A: All grant work needs to be more properly examined and intentional to specific populations. Also, institutions need to be self-reflective. Budgets are a statement of values. Where can we reallocate resources, infrastructure and talent to support the desired outcomes?

As individuals, we all have to be doing the really self-reflective work. What do we need to be doing ourselves in order to make things better? I see incredible hope for us with the partners we’re working with and the institutions we serve.

Q: How do you think coaching fits into the conversation about belonging and connectedness at HSIs?

A: Coaching is a form of servingness. The way in which we often think about servingness from an HSI is enrollment, but that doesn’t always translate to servingness in practice. This is equity operationalized and gives the institution the agency to determine how to use this support. That’s what gets me excited about working with HSIs.

I don’t want to diminish the work HSIs are doing. But resources are limited. Institutions often don’t have the number of employees to do the work that needs to be done. Being able to come in and work alongside the servingness work that institutions are doing is incredibly powerful.

Having worked at three HSIs and supported dozens, it is imperative that institutions have the humility to identify when they need support. You have to be open to exploring the data and disaggregating your data. Enrollment and re-enrollment are crucial. So many HSIs have so many adult learners who have some credit and no degree. They have already decided postsecondary education is part of their journey and we must re-engage and support them.

When I think of coaching and the work we do at InsideTrack, building rapport and reciprocity — institutions want this, they just don’t always have resources. They want someone as deeply invested as they are.

So how can we help move this wheel forward so that we can change outcomes? Our future is dependent on it. You can’t wish it in. You have to work it in.

Our serving work at HSIs is not formulaic, it is more mosaic. We are an artistic community working on institutional canvases. And sometimes you have to scrape that canvas. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure. Nevertheless, we must use the hues of humanity to paint our mosaic. If we can do that — and provide that type of agency, that type of engagement to our learners — that’s when we’re doing real servingness with a capital S.

Q: What is targeted universalism and how does that fit into all this?

A:  Law professor, Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute, and the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion at the University of California Berkeley, john a. powell, talks about targeted universalism — that there’s a universal benefit for serving people who have the most opportunity for growth. Using data in a disaggregated way allows us to have a compass on the ship that we’re steering, taking race, gender, geography, ability and orientation into account. The fastest growing populations are multi-racial. We have to do the servingness work now to be able to meet the community needs. We are uniquely positioned at InsideTrack because we enable our learners to define what success looks like.

Think of it like an optometrist trying to get to a clearer prescription. Prescriptions change! What does it mean to be privileged and oppressed simultaneously? We tend to think our prescription is THE prescription. But it’s A prescription. That’s the hope that I have. Our future is inextricably bound together.

Q: What haven’t we talked about that you’d like to share?

A: Reconcile that this work is imperfect and it will require “ganas” (fortitude, courage, the will to make it happen). There is a potent resistance to doing educational equity work. Why are folks so resistant? Does it mean that we’re on to something? You can’t change that, but you can’t let gaslighting and resistance hinder us from doing the ancestral work that so many of those before us have called us to do. We have to be able to partner with and learn from everyone. To call each other in and know that it’s going to be imperfect.

Transparency in coaching is a great way to build trust with learners and make them feel safe and seen. Explore four tried-and-true techniques that InsideTrack coaches use to practice transparency with their own learners.

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