Texas Tech University

Texas Tech Researchers Work to Meet Needs of Hispanic Students

Karen Michael

December 7, 2022

After Texas Tech achieves HSI, faculty aim to meet needs of Hispanic students.

Rudy Ritz grew up in Meadow, less than a half-hour's drive from Texas Tech University, and he hopes his background as a Hispanic student near the university can help attract other Hispanic students from nearby areas to the sciences.

Rudy Ritz
Rudy Ritz

Ritz is now an associate professor in the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources. He and other faculty members are working on ways to help Hispanic students get involved in undergraduate research and support initiatives that offer experiential learning opportunities like internships.

Texas Tech was designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by the U.S. Department of Education in 2019, and Hispanic students have comprised more than 25% of the university's student population since 2017. The designation allows the university to seek $10 million in additional Department of Education funds to enhance educational opportunities, as well as allowing researchers at the university access to increased federal research funding, including grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), among others.

Ritz's current research focuses on recruiting underrepresented students in food and agricultural sciences, especially those who want to stay in the region.

“Never in my dreams would I have thought at the age of 18, that I would have the ability to get a terminal degree,” he said. Ritz received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Texas Tech, followed by 14 years as an agriscience teacher before deciding to return to Texas Tech for a Doctor of Education degree.

But he said having all three of his degrees from one university is unusual in academia, because students interested in graduate-level studies are encouraged to go to different institutions. Ritz believes that advice can be detrimental to Hispanic students.

“Hispanic people don't leave their families,” Ritz said.

Ritz is the co-principal investigator on an HSI grant in collaboration with New Mexico State University. Researchers from the two universities are working to attract and increase enrollment of underrepresented students in the food and agricultural sciences. The grant was awarded by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Ritz credits Steve Fraze, a former Texas Tech interim dean of the Davis College who moved on to head the Agricultural and Extension Education Department at New Mexico State University, as the principal investigator on the project.

The grant is designed to help Texas Tech and NMSU recruit future scientists and to try to keep those students in the region and close to their families. Ritz said five undergraduate students will join the program each year and will be paired with a faculty mentor in the Davis College.

“One of the main benefits for students is that they'll have a better understanding of research,” Ritz said. “It'll give them a chance to see a world that our undergraduate students for the very, very large majority are never exposed to. It will also give them the opportunity to understand the skills involved with research investigations, that they can actually do it. It's not beyond their reach to pursue that master's level degree, or even a terminal degree.”

Through the grant collaboration, Ritz also hopes to create a partnership with New Mexico State University where each school encourages its undergraduates to consider attending the other school for graduate work. This will give them exposure to a diverse group of faculty, but it will still keep them closer to their homes and families.

“Maybe if we approach this with the grow our own and keep them at home mentality, we might be a little more successful in recruiting and retaining future faculty who are Hispanic,” Ritz said. “They're not going to go to Ohio State.”

Ritz said Hispanic enrollment has gone up 142 percent since 2014 in the Davis College.

“We need to keep growing because the numbers aren't anywhere near representative of our Hispanic population in the state,” he said. “But they're right here in our backyard. I'm an example of that.”

Texas Tech Offers Funding, Mentoring to STEM Students From Rural Communities

Another Texas Tech researcher, Callum Hetherington, is working on helping students who are from rural and underserved communities find careers within the sciences while at Texas Tech. Hetherington is an associate professor of mineralogy and geochemistry in the Department of Geosciences, and is working to attract more students to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Callum Hetherington
Callum Hetherington

“We are interested in advocating for the recruitment of majors in STEM fields, with a particular emphasis on biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and geosciences, by connecting to rural students coming from rural and underserved communities that are interested in STEM,” Hetherington said. “But they sometimes struggle to identify pathways into these fields. They may not necessarily identify these fields as being pathways to employment, particularly employment back in their home communities.”

Like Ritz, he believes Hispanic communities are historically viewed as being a bit more family-centric than average.

And while Hetherington understands some students from rural communities view education as a ticket out of those communities, many really want to return and contribute. Those students might look toward business, medical professions or engineering based on their perceived economic value, but he believes they could use a science background even in rural communities if they knew about the opportunities.

“There is a lower representation of Hispanic students from rural communities in the sciences,” Hetherington said.

Hetherington received a grant from NSF to attract future scientists and mathematicians from rural and underserved regions. With the grant funding, the South Plains STEM Scholars program provides qualifying students the opportunity to participate in paid undergraduate research or get internships and other employment opportunities close to their homes during the summer. The students get mentored by faculty members along the way and can receive scholarship support.

Hetherington said students who come from weaker financial starting points tend to not know about opportunities that are available for working on campus, internships or research opportunities. All those things can make them more competitive if they choose to move on to graduate school in the sciences.

“There's all sorts of knowledge, information, and encouragement and mentoring that are available to higher income students that lower income students are not as aware of,” he said. “We will pay you to go and do undergraduate research, if you're interested in undergraduate research, and you want to be able to have a career in a STEM field. Do you want to examine undergraduate research opportunities with a view to graduate school? We will either supplement the hourly salary that's available from a mentor, or we will pay it all.”

According to Hetherington, the program offers a triple benefit because students are gaining income and experience while not leaving campus. It is a combination of mentoring, financial support, and opportunities that might not have been available otherwise.

Opportunities Developed at Texas Tech Could Help Other HSIs 

The opportunities being developed at Texas Tech also have the potential of helping students on other HSI campuses across the country.

Lucy Arellano
Lucy Arellano

Lucy Arellano is an associate professor of higher education in the department of educational psychology, leadership and counseling in the College of Education at Texas Tech. She is one of several researchers developing a network of faculty, staff and students at HSI universities and community colleges to accelerate Latinx representation in STEM education. The NSF awarded $9.98 million to these researchers, headed by Caroline VanIngen-Dunn at Arizona State University.

Specifically, Arellano said she and others in the project are actively researching and thinking about how to serve the needs of Latinx students at 26 different HSIs and emerging HSIs.

“What my question as a researcher is, what is Texas Tech doing differently to address the needs of the student population?” Arellano said.

The research is looking at how the university supports the Hispanic students who come here -- perhaps as low-income or first-generation students. Researchers want to know how universities are creating undergraduate research opportunities and graduate research experiences.

“There's still this question of what it means to be a Hispanic-Serving Institution versus just a Hispanic-enrolling institution. Right, so we have the numbers. Great,” Arellano said. “What does it mean to be intentional and serving?”