By Christopher Connell
From its architecturally distinctive campus a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) straddles more than two countries and two cultures. In higher education, it straddles the worlds of opportunity and high achievement, or "access and excellence," as longtime President Diana S. Natalicio calls them. With 14 doctoral programs and eight more on the way, UTEP is the nation's only doctoral-research university with a Mexican-American majority. Not only are 73 percent of its 20,000 students Hispanic, but an additional 9 percent are Mexican citizens who cross the border from Ciudad Juarez each morning to pursue engineering, nursing and other degrees in the United States. While the nation wrangles over immigration policy, Texas rolls out the welcome mat for college students from Mexico. In 1987, the Texas legislature extended in-state tuition rates at UTEP (and later at other public universities) to Mexican students with demonstrated need.
UTEP, founded in this desert redoubt in 1914 as the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy, has become one of the nation's most prolific producers of Latino scientists and engineers. In 1995, the National Science Foundation designated this Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) as one of six Model Institutions for Excellence in producing minority scientists and engineers. That recognition has been a boon for UTEP's reputation and research budget.
Natalicio has guided the university on this journey for two decades. She is realistic but not daunted by UTEP's formidable challenges. El Paso County is the fourth-poorest county in the nation. Eighty percent of UTEP's students come from this desert valley, and most attended its hard-pressed public schools. For many, college is a financial and academic struggle. Only 4 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen who entered UTEP in Fall 2000 graduated in four years, 17 percent in five years, and 29 percent after six.
Still, most students keep at it — some for 10 years or more. And UTEP is finding ways for more students to beat the odds. The university long has been celebrated for graduating science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors (it awarded 441 STEM bachelor's degrees in 2005, up 41 percent from a decade earlier). But today it is drawing national attention for its work on speeding students through developmental math and reading and for providing classroom supports that keep students engaged from semester to semester.
UTEP first created a special program back in 1997 to help first-year science and engineering students adjust to the demands of college life. Administrators soon realized that all new students and transfers could benefit from extra support, advice and encouragement. The centerpiece of the Entering Student Program, launched in 1999, is a three-credit seminar called University 1301 that engages students in critical thinking while showing them the ropes on campus. In 2006-07, almost 2,900 new students took the course, which is taught in tandem by an instructor, a librarian and a student peer leader who address topics from race and the environment to how to succeed as an entrepreneur. An academic adviser is also assigned to each section. University 1301 is credited with boosting retention from semester to semester and year to year. Another key is placing scores of students in meaningful, part-time jobs in laboratories and as class assistants and peer tutors.
Natalicio herself is a first-generation college graduate, a grandchild of German immigrants. After six weeks at a switchboard after high school in St. Louis, she re-engineered her life by enrolling at St. Louis University, where she says the Jesuits "turned me around. They made me love learning." After a Fulbright scholarship to Brazil and a doctorate in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, Natalicio came to UTEP in 1971 as a visiting assistant professor and rose through the ranks. "But my life was a cakewalk compared to what some of these students are doing here," she says. "Legions of our students are doing amazing things: working, taking care of a disabled parent, helping raise younger brothers and sisters, volunteering. "These are such talented young people. ... They don't deserve mediocrity; they deserve the best."
Early in her tenure, Natalicio took the lead in forming the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, which brings together the leaders of the university, the El Paso Community College District (EPCC) and the public schools to work in concert on behalf of students and their future. This partnership has paid repeated dividends, most recently in addressing the need for remedial work before students can take a full college-level load. With 25,000 students at five branches, EPCC is one of the nation's largest community colleges and has been a participant from the outset in Achieving the Dream: Community Colleges Count, a national initiative aimed at increasing success rates among community college students. EPCC President Richard M. Rhodes, a former certified public accountant, shares Natalicio's passion—and embraces Achieving the Dream's requirement—for basing strategy on hard evidence.
Rhodes thought 75 percent of new EPCC students needed remedial math. "We were astounded to find it actually was 97 percent," he says. Students fresh from El Paso high schools weren't much better than adults returning years later. Rhodes shared the disturbing results in November 2005 with community leaders, including the superintendents of El Paso's largest school districts. Anticipating their disbelief, he also loaded the math placement test onto computers and invited anybody who felt like pointing fingers to step across the hall and "see how many of us place into developmental math."
No one took him up on the offer. But two superintendents stood up and declared publicly that the results were unacceptable. Four months later, they were testing their own seniors to see who was ready for college math. All 12 area public-school districts now use Accuplacer tests, and they test juniors so there is still time to sharpen their math skills before college.
"There's a tremendous rustiness factor," explains Richard S. Jarvis, UTEP's provost and vice president for academic affairs. "You can get students who've done calculus in an AP class and place into developmental math because they mess up fractions or goof up a simple quadratic equation."
UTEP is moving on several fronts to reduce the time spent catching up on the fundamentals. "We changed our summer orientation and put in a six-hour math refresher course—two hours a day for three days," says Jarvis. After that refresher, 48 percent of students Uni ver s i t y of Texa s a t El Pa so improve their placement score enough to avoid at least one developmental course, and almost a third avoid developmental math altogether. That is music to any administrator's ears.
Stephen Aley, associate provost for academic affairs and an associate professor of biology, is charged with making other intervention efforts. Aley, a graduate of Cal Tech and Rockefeller University, was a research professor at the University of California-San Diego before joining the UTEP faculty in 1995. He directed a project funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to increase student success in the sciences. Now, as associate provost, he oversees the experiments that are minimizing the time students spend in developmental math. For students who got all A's and B's in high school, it's demoralizing to walk onto campus—only to be told, "You don't know enough math to be in college."
Aley and like-minded colleagues are tweaking the process of identifying who needs to spend a full 12 weeks in developmental math. Using this new process, UTEP diverted the top third of 1,000 students slated for remedial algebra into college-level math and gave them an added lab. They were just as successful as the other students. Now the university is trying this same approach with the next third. Ben Flores, associate dean of UTEP's College of Engineering, admits that some of what is taking place in labs and classrooms almost sounds too good to be true—but he has seen the proof.
A key to UTEP's success in producing more scientists and engineers has been its Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which gets students working in labs on real science projects early in their careers. Ninety percent of these students graduate, and many go on to graduate school as well. That's "the icing on the cake," says Flores, who says his own participation in research as a UTEP undergraduate put him on the path to his Ph.D.
Flores, current director of the Model Institutions for Excellence grant from the National Science Foundation (which has poured $22 million into UTEP since 1995), is himself a native of Ciudad Juarez. He won a goodwill scholarship to UTEP in 1981; El Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil (PASE), the in-state tuition program, wasn't in existence then. Also, his single mother, a telegraph operator, borrowed money to send him to the university across the border. He keeps her telegraph key on his office desk as a reminder of his mother's sacrifice, and he crosses the bridge each Sunday to visit her.
Jennifer Taylor, now a doctoral student in psychology, also had a strong role model at home: her mother Hilda, who was born in Juarez and enrolled in remedial classes at El Paso Community College when Jennifer entered first grade. Mother and daughter graduated from UTEP together in 2004 — Jennifer with a bachelor's degree, and Hilda with a doctorate in environmental science and engineering. The elder Taylor is now on the EPCC faculty as a biology professor.
Denisse Leony, a senior biology major, is speeding through UTEP after getting her start at EPCC in the Border Bridges to the Baccalaureate Program—an effort funded by the National Institutes of Health to help minorities pursue careers in biomedical research. Leony, who has had two papers published in scientific journals, aspires to earn both a master's and a doctorate and do cancer research. "I want to stay here because I know that El Paso has a future, and I want to be a part of it," says the 21-year-old.
"I want to stay here because I know that El Paso has a future, and I want to be a part of it."
Despite the region's poverty, UTEP attracts a large share of El Paso's best and brightest. Howard Daudistel, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, says: "The talent is out there. It's all over the place. It's just that, historically, people haven't been given access to the opportunities to cultivate that talent."
Provost Jarvis, a British-born geographer, notes that 700,000 people live in greater El Paso while 1.5 million live on the Juarez side, where there are four universities. Yet none of the four has the size or scope of UTEP, and some actually are more expensive for Mexican citizens than going to UTEP and paying the PASE tuition rate. These students face serious logistical challenges to attend college in the United States.
Two who cross the bridge each morning to attend UTEP are Daniel Fuentes, 22, a senior economics and finance major, and Alma Angelica Ochoa, 23, a sophomore who intends to major in chemistry. Both live in Juarez. To make classes, they factor into their commutes 60- to 90-minute waits for inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. The return trip only takes five minutes.
"It's difficult to do that every single day, but I'm sure my education is worth it," says Fuentes, who hopes to earn an MBA at McGill University in Montreal and return to this valley to work on regional development. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity to be a UTEP student." Fuentes, who serves in the student senate, recently shortened his commute by using earnings from a campus job to purchase a pass allowing him to use dedicated commuter lanes at the bridge. Mexico charges commuters $300 a year; the U.S. fee is $127 for five years.
"One Saturday I said, 'OK, this is my last day cutting hair.' On Monday I went to EPCC, registered late and started two weeks later."
Ochoa is following in the footsteps of her brother, a2004 UTEP graduate who is a systems engineer forHoneywell. UTEP "is a little bit harder, but there aremore options for us if we learn English very well and if we come from UTEP," she says. "The people are verynice here. The only thing would just be the bridge. Theimmigration officers, sometimes they are hard. I understandit's their work to check everybody, (and) it's aborder—but sometimes they are not so nice with us."
Natalicio believes the usual way graduation rates arecalculated makes her urban university look less productivethan it is. She estimates that fully 70 percent of the 2,400 UTEP students who earned undergraduatedegrees in 2006 were never counted in any enteringUTEP cohort of first-time, full-time freshmen. Morethan 2,000 students transfer into UTEP each year, manyas sophomores or juniors. When they earn theirdegrees, they do not count toward UTEP's official, sixyeargraduation rate.
Roy Mathew, director of UTEP's Center for InstitutionalEvaluation, Research and Planning, looked at the groupof students who entered in Fall 1999 and found that,after six years, almost 57 percent either had graduated or were still enrolled at UTEP or another university in Texas. Mathew and his research colleagues, with supportfrom Lumina Foundation, are also digging into thedata from UTEP's Student Success Project to build statisticalmodels that will help them identify and understandthe factors that put students at risk for failure.They identified 23 factors, from age and family incometo hours worked and ACT scores. They confirmed thatrank and GPA in high school serve as good proxies forsuccess in college. But their work also suggests that it ispossible for students who were not engaged in highschool to become so during their first year at UTEP.
"The next phase of our research focuses on untanglingthe complex factors that determine student engagement," said Mathew. When students fail acourse, the researchers want to find out why. "They don't just wake up on a single day and fail a course; ithappens over a period of time," he said.
Despite the risk factors, persistence is a hallmark ofUTEP students. Aileen Kalt earned her bachelor's degree in nursing in August, two weeks before her 40thbirthday. A native of El Paso, she first enrolled in UTEPin 1985 after her high school graduation, but quit aftergetting married. Kalt became an emergency medicaltechnician and a technician in a hospital emergencyroom while raising two children—by then as a singlemother. When she returned to the university in 2002,she was allowed to retake several classes in which shehad gotten mediocre grades as a teenager. This time sheearned academic honors. Daughter Krystal, 20, willearn her nursing degree through the same program in 2008, and when the medical school opens in 2009, Kalthopes to enroll and fulfill a girlhood dream of becominga physician.
Angelica Molix, 39, also took a circuitous route tothe UTEP education degree she received in May. Molix was born in Mexico. Her father gained U.S. citizenshipafter enlisting in the Army and moved his family to El Paso when she was 4. Angelica, the oldest of five, was adrummer in high school, and UTEP's band directoroffered her a partial scholarship. But her father told her: "If you want to go to college, first you work with your hands, and then you pay your own way." She became a hairdresser, married and had four children, then decidedin 2002 she wanted to do something more with her life." One Saturday I said, "OK, this is my last day cutting hair." On Monday I went to EPCC, registered late and started two weeks later," she says. Two years after that, she had an associate's degree.
Maggy Smith, dean of University College and vice provost for undergraduate studies, says UTEP bases all of its strategies for student success on data, "and we're constantly reassessing them." University College operatesfrom offices in several campus buildings to givenew students academic guidance, help with admissionsand financial aid, and academic support. That supportincludes a cadre of Peer Leaders—UTEP students whothemselves have overcome hurdles and are thereforebest situated to help others.
Juarez-born Blanca Guerrero, 22, is one of those PeerLeaders. She began at UTEP as an accounting major,but switched to literature and secondary education andhopes one day to teach high school seniors to loveWhitman and Chaucer as much as she does. "I've beenhelped so much by everything that UTEP has to offer," says Guerrero. "It's just amazing how you can go anywhereand there's a support system there to help students."
Christopher Connell is a freelance journalist based in Alexandria, Va. He is a former education reporter for the Associated Press who also served three years as assistant chief of AP's Washington bureau.