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Sarita Brown.
Sarita Brown knew and knows higher education like no other. Photo credit: Peter Fitzpatrick / Al Día.

Excelencia in Education: 19 years serving the Latino community

Co-founder and president Sarita Brown tells AL DÍA about the organization’s trajectory.

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Sarita Brown and Deborah Santiago founded Excelencia in Education in 2004. Born to accelerate Latino student success in higher education and shift old conversations, Excelencia’s work is about the Latino human capital of this country. 

Instead of focusing on immigration, the organization worries about Latinos who are in the United States right now. It devotes attention to the participation of students who are transitioning from the K-12 system into colleges and universities that are ready to receive them — and, most importantly, ready to propel them into society. 

The now president Brown never thought she would be leading such a prestigious organization, but this is a story that has roots more than two decades ago. 

Brown began her professional career at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), where she was also both an undergrad and a graduate student. In her experience working as a young professional in the institution, Brown built the minority affairs operation at the graduate level, a strategy that included 85 departments and 9 colleges. When she left UT, the institution was ranked number one in granting doctor’s degrees to Latinos and top 20 to African Americans.  

“It was a life lesson for me,” she said. “What I experienced is that if you are clear about what you seek to accomplish, if you recognize what is the change and action that you want to accomplish, and then you are pretty straightforward with working with others, you can do it.” 

Because part of the growing experience is moving away, after 15 years, Brown left UT to live an adventure at the White House. Initially, she expected for it to be just that, an adventure from which she would go back to Texas. Fortunately, things don’t always happen as we expect. In Washington D.C, Brown met Santiago, a partnership that since the beginning was promised to do great things. 

HOW IT STARTED 

Excelencia grew from Brown and Santiago’s shared professional experiences serving the Clinton administration, in the 90s. During her first federal service, Brown was the Executive Director of The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, in 1997. 

She remembers moving to the capital in the midst of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act — described by her as a particularly significant moment because an effort to secure federal funding for Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) was finally effectively being supported in legislation.  

A data enthusiast and specialist, Santiago was a Policy Analyst in the department at the time. According to Brown, there is no one else that can read data the way Santiago does  — who also studied issues related to HSIs on her own. 

The synergy between the two has happened since they first met in August of 1997. More than work colleagues, they became friends. 

They spent three years working on all aspects of education in the country — from early childhood to lifelong education. When the work was done, they followed separated paths. While Santiago went to California, Brown joined the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF). 

Always connected by discussions surrounding the Latino community, they were concerned about the way the media was talking about Latinos as if they were a problem —especially after the release of the 2000s U.S. Census. 

“This is so wrong headed,” Brown remembers thinking. “It presents the growth of the Latino community and its vibrancy and vitality as a liability. We are an asset, we are the liveforce of this country, we are clearly the potential student body and workforce.” 

Brown and Santiago asked each other if there was something they could do to help move the chronic discussion of problems into a discussion of the use of effective solutions. Focused on making it factual and clear, and relevant for all positions of authority but mainly higher education, they started with a concept: the Excelencia Initiative.

CHANGES THROUGHOUT THE YEARS

Excelencia now has a network of over 160 institutions that are led by presidents and chancellors who are committed to increasing Latino success rates. They want and are ready to do the work needed. They name a team and work directly with Excelencia — something that didn’t exist before. 

From 2004 to 2023, the work that Excelencia has created — which is a good deal of research and analysis — has been coupled with a structure, as a part of their tactical plan. Brown said that college and university leaders can access evidence-based practices, network and get engaged by connecting with them.

In the past, people may have had intentions to change the discourse about Latinos, but they didn’t know how to do it. Excelencia came to put a spotlight on it, by driving positive attention to programs, places and people that produce positive results. 

“People describe us as an advocacy organization,” Brown said. “We are not your classic advocacy organization. No, we don’t lobby congress or legislators, but we influence people’s attention.”  

People engage in these conversations about Latinos knowing that changes are possible — it’s no longer just in theory. It’s just a matter of how fast, wide and big they want to go, Brown stated. 

DATA IS THE KEY 

A fact driven organization, Santiago says that everything Excelencia produces is cited and sourced. If anyone is skeptical, they can look at it for themselves on the organization’s website.  

“There are some people who don’t want to hear what we say, but they can’t refute what we say,” Brown said. 

She reinforces that institutions have to look at the data they collect about admissions, degrees, class performance and more. The purpose is to not only analyze the people who are being recruited and admitted, but also what happens to these students while they are on campus and part of the institution. 

“How wonderful it is when we have students that leave institutions strong and ready to take on all opportunities,” Brown added. “It’s the highest aspiration for a higher education institution.” 

HISPANIC SERVING INSTITUTIONS  

For Brown, the idea of a HSI is very powerful. 

The federal designation to become a HSI is enrollment driven and institutions that reach 25% of Hispanic students can submit an application and go through the process. However, actually understanding what it means to serve this community is another discussion. 

Faculty, curriculum and students’ experience say more about inclusion than just enrollment — and Brown knew that since the beginning. As a young professional still at UT, she supported the idea but wanted to see it grow. 

Today, there are over 500 HSIs, and Excelencia keeps working to see it get bigger and better. 

Because the majority of the institutions still lack in intentionally serving Latino students, Excelencia established in 2018 the Seal of Excelencia, a national certification that aims to support and reinforce institutions that strive to go beyond enrollment. 

There are the three core components that framework the Seal of Excelencia: data, practice, and leadership. Aligning them allows an internal review of how the institution in Excelencia’s terms intentionally serves. 

“Institutions like to talk about their great programs, but don’t see if there are any Latinos on it,” Brown confessed. 

SERVING THE LATINO COMMUNITY

The quality of how well an institution serves first generation college students also talks about its concerns about Latinos, as most of them are the first in their families to go to college. It’s necessary to teach and familiarize those students with college knowledge — from how to choose classes to how to manage work and study. 

During Brown’s time at UT, the institution had Latinos for sports, but not leadership positions. She highlights how important it is for institutions to really want to include this community.

“Not because there are more Mexicans in Texas, for example, that Texan institutions are making an effort to include them more,” Brown said. 

Regarding Philadelphia, she mentions how present the Latino community is in the city. There are many higher education institutions in Philadelphia that are wonderful, but don’t have a significant embedded experience of developing relations with the Latino community. 

For the future, Brown says it is important for us all to take responsibility and consciously collaborate with others in the community. The solutions the country needs are clear, but it takes courage and stamina to do it. 

“If you [college or university leader] want to be innovative and future oriented in 2023, figure out how to use college and university structures to match with the people who want to get degrees, succeed and help them get degrees,” Brown said. “Now we are talking about true innovation.” 

This is the time to find the resources to push a little further. More of the same is going to get us more of the same. Mastering what currently exists is important, but just doing that does not innovate, she added. 

Working on a plan that brings changes not just for ourselves, but for the country itself is what Brown, Santiago and the whole Excelencia team are committed to doing. 

“Don’t think that you have to do it alone,” Brown said. “Entre nos, we need to be together.”

 

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