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UAlbany President Talks Hispanic Serving Institutions, COVID Study

Havidan Rodriguez
Jesse King
UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez";

The University at Albany is partnering with Excelencia in Education for the release of its new report on “25 Years of Hispanic Serving Institutions.” The analysis, which was briefed at UAlbany Thursday, aims to inform lawmakers and school administrators how best to serve Latino/Latina students in higher education. UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez spoke with WAMC’s Jesse King about the report.

For those who don't know, what is a Hispanic Serving Institution? 

A Hispanic Serving Institution is a federally designated institution which has an enrollment of about 25 percent or more of Latino/Latina/Hispanic students. Roughly speaking, today about 15 percent of our students are classified as Latino or Latina, about 17.6 percent of our undergraduate students fall in that classification, and about 8.4 percent of our graduate students fall under the classification of Latino/Latina/Hispanic. And so we are considered an emerging Hispanic Serving Institution — but I think it's important to highlight that, in addition to the numbers, which are critically important, the most important thing is the commitment of the institution, regardless of those numbers, to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to really expand the services that it provides to our students, and ensuring student success. 

The Education Trust has cited [UAlbany] as a Top 10 performing institution for Latino and Latina student success. UAlbany has also been continuously recognized as a national leader in social mobility, by rankings and outlets such as U.S. News & World Report, the Washington Monthly, Education Reform, and College Net, among others. And so while we are focusing on, yes, increasing the presence of students of color [on campus] — and Latinos in this case — we are also focused on ensuring the success of these students. 

What are some of the findings of this report? How have HSIs changed in the last 25 years? 

Well there's been significant changes. First, there's a demographic factor. As you know, the Latino/Latina/Hispanic population across the United States has continued to grow. It is the largest minority group in the United States today, and their numbers in terms of higher education have also continued to increase quite significantly throughout the years. Of course, this past year, as a consequence of COVID, we've seen, generally, a decline in student applications and the number of students in institutions of higher education. But this factor has been exacerbated for students of color, like Blacks and Latino/Latina students, because, as you know, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and we also see that that's having impacts on their enrollment in terms of institutions of higher education. But that said, if you take a look at the pattern of the past 25 years, you see increasing enrollment of Latinos/Latinas in institutions of higher education, you see increasing retention, and increasing graduation rates. So there is greater success — not only access, but student success as well. 

You mentioned how the pandemic is bringing down application numbers from minority students. What are some things schools can do to remedy that? 

First of all, we need to really reach out to our students. We need to develop a campus climate, and provide the services that our students need to succeed. So going from financial aid, scholarships to make sure that these students can afford a college education, that once they're here at the institution, we put all the resources in place to ensure that they are, indeed, successful. And providing anything from student services to mental health services — which has become a major issue for institutions of higher education, especially during our focus on COVID. It really has had a significant impact on the mental health of our students.

So reaching out, providing the services, the resources, including financial services, and once they are on campus, working very closely with them through advising and mentoring programs, and student engagement programs — to ensure that we not only recruit them, but retain them, and ensure that they graduate in a timely manner from the University at Albany. 

Governor [Andrew] Cuomo appointed you to serve as executive director of SUNY's Hispanic Leadership Institute last year. How is that going? 

That is going incredibly well. We have our fourth cohort of students, or what we call HLI — Hispanic Leadership Institute — fellows. We have very engaged faculty and staff throughout the SUNY system, and the goal here is really to work with our Latino/Latina community within SUNY to provide them the resources, the skills, the background, the expertise, to continue to diversify the leaders in institutions of higher education generally, but of course, focused on SUNY. It's a great program, it is funded by the state of New York, and Governor Cuomo has been very, very supportive. I'm very excited about the program, and the success of the program and our fellows. 

We've focused a lot of stories on diversity and inclusion, particularly at college campuses. One thing some Black students at other colleges have told our reporters is that they sometimes feel they are used as a "diversity prop." How do you navigate creating these programs for minority students without making them feel othered? 

That is a critical part of the conversation, right? This is not only about words, this is about action. We also want to make sure that we address the issues and the challenges that these students are confronting. For example, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the state of New York. Well, given that we have close to 40 percent of our students that are underrepresented minority students, or students of color — they have also been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, which means UAlbany has suffered those consequences as well. This is one of the critical reasons why we at the university are leading a research project, which we were asked to do by New York state and Governor Cuomo, to study the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color. That is our background, that is our expertise, we have major strengths there. So again, it's not only about the numbers, it's about the actions, it's about intentionality, and what are the outcomes and the results of what we're doing here at the institution. 

What is the status of your study on COVID and communities of color? 

That is moving forward very nicely. We've assembled a team of over 35 researchers here at the institution. We've been partnering with Upstate Medical and SUNY Downstate Medical to bring collaborators together. We've done a number of forms, we submitted a report to New York state in terms of the initial research that we've done. We've done a great study on vaccine hesitancy, which we presented to the New York State Vaccine Equity Task Force that was established by the governor. And we are now preparing a final report, which we will be submitting to the governor's office in the near-term future. 

Do you have an expected finish date in mind? 

We anticipate that within a month or so that report should be in the governor's office, but the thing about this research is that a number of other research projects have emerged. We have faculty who are writing research proposals to be submitted to the National Science Foundation and others. So while we will submit a final report to New York state, this does not have an end date for us. 

What are you finding so far? 

What we are finding is some of the things we already know, right? Communities of color — and this is substantiated by the data that's coming out on a regular basis — tend to not be as welcoming to immediately vaccinating themselves. So there is vaccine hesitancy. There are concerns about the vaccine, there are concerns about previous issues and challenges that minority communities have had with medical experimentation. Which brings about the need to work very closely with communities of color to ensure that they have access to the vaccines, that they receive additional information, that we raise awareness about the importance of vaccination, so that we can reduce the incidence, the positivity rate, the hospitalization rate, and the mortality rate. And that’s why the New York State Vaccine Equity Task Force is so critically important, because we’re working on communicating this information. And as the number of vaccines continue to increase throughout the next few months, we hope that we will continue to reach these communities in growing and growing numbers. But there is a need for further education, raising awareness, and working with these communities to ensure that we increase the vaccination rates.

The Cuomo administration is taking a lot of heat right now for undercounting nursing home deaths from COVID. Given that, are you confident that the data you’re working with is accurate?

We are collecting our data, we have no issues with the data that we’re collecting. We’re working with a variety of partners. As our researchers do on a regular basis, they verify their data, they make sure that we have quality data that we feel very confident in reporting.  

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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