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Laying the Foundation for Higher Education

Dr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse found her destiny in a middle school classroom. While working at AT&T as an engineer, she joined the company’s group for Hispanic employees and was asked to go speak to a class of middle school students in Newark, New Jersey. She gladly agreed.

Dr. Ivonne Diaz-ClaisseDr. Ivonne Diaz-Claisse“I told my story — what it took for me to achieve my dream — and at the end, the students wanted my autograph,” says Diaz-Claisse, president and CEO of Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement (HISPA), a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey. “Each student said, ‘Because of you, I’m going to do better in school.’ They were telling me about changes they were going to make based on learning from my story.”

Diaz-Claisse thought that, if she could amplify the impact by her friends and colleagues also accepting similar speaking engagements, they could collectively become role models and change the future of Hispanic Americans. Today, there are over 3,000 HISPA role models nationwide.

“One of the biggest holes that we had in this educational pipeline was the validation, the exposure to role models,” she says.


HISPA seeks to inspire Latino students to discover their potential and to ignite their desire to embrace education and achieve success. The organization has received financial support from many institutions, including the Educational Testing Service, or ETS.

“Research shows that having role models of the same race and ethnicity with whom you identify directly correlates and contributes to pursuit of and achievement in academic and professional endeavors,” says Kelly Grossman, communications and development manager at HISPA. “Because Hispanics have been historically underrepresented in areas like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), for example, or in C-Suite (executive corporate) positions, unfortunately so many students question if these things are possible for them.”

Diaz-Claisse says she asked herself precisely that question. Growing up in Puerto Rico, she was fascinated with math, but couldn’t imagine studying it at a university until she met a Puerto Rican mathematician who validated her vision. After earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Universidad de Puerto Rico, she earned a master’s degree in engineering at Cornell University, a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in mathematics at Arizona State University.

Her group, HISPA, has roots in the Hispanic Association of AT&T Employees, established in 1984 as the company’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group. It provides outreach programs for Hispanics throughout the U.S. The organization incorporated in 1986 and received 501(c)3 nonprofit status in 1993. Changes to the structure took place in the mid-2000s, making HISPA the name and allowing non-AT&T members to participate in outreach activities. After AT&T and Southern Bell merged, HISPA leadership decided to keep the group intact and in 2007 voted to become the independent nonprofit organization it is today. Diaz-Claisse says that, by HISPA becoming a stand-alone organization, it has been able to partner with the Hispanic resource groups of many companies. She speaks at corporations, universities, and conferences to explain how critical the work is, both for Latino youth and for the country, which has a growing Hispanic population.


“Our focus became to mobilize Latino professionals and be the connectors with the students,” says Diaz-Claisse. HISPA fellows with New Jersey Governor Phil MurphyHISPA fellows with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy

The main program is the HISPA Role Model Program in which role models speak to students at predominantly low-income, public middle schools with majority Hispanic student populations, sharing their stories and encouraging student success. These role models come from companies and businesses local to the schools. 

“Role models are familiar with that immediate community,” says Grossman. “Some actually attended the middle schools where they are speaking. The students identify and see themselves as that person.”

This past year, over 500 school sessions were scheduled across about 30 schools in New Jersey and other cities, says Fred Cline, HISPA operations director. The role models also instill in the students the importance of believing in themselves. Recruiting and engaging the role models is an ongoing endeavor.

“We train the role models, review their presentations and give them some feedback, particularly for the newer ones,” says Cline. There are HISPA Imagine Days, in which the students visit various corporate headquarters, which brings them in contact with HISPA Role Models and exposes them to what goes on in a workplace. For example, at a pharmaceutical company, they’ll learn about chemistry, and at a telecommunications company, they’ll hear about technology.

Grossman, whose background is in education, says middle schoolers are central to HISPA’s mission because it puts them on a path to achievement. By the time some students get to high school, they have often been marginalized and have developed a lack of faith in education and lack of belief in themselves to succeed.

“Middle school is such a critical time, and we can still reach these students and instill that belief,” she says. “We continue that with programs in high school and in college.”

Feedback is gathered and data is reviewed about student reactions to the programming. Cline says some students say they didn’t know about the available educational options until they heard a HISPA speaker.

“One of the things that I find most interesting is that, periodically, someone says they didn’t realize that knowing Spanish was going to be a benefit to them,” says Cline. “Corporations and businesses want to have people from their background working with them.”

HISPA’s Leadership Workshop was developed in 2012 in collaboration with the Governor’s Hispanic Fellows Program and sponsored and overseen by the New Jersey Center for Hispanic Policy, Research and Development. It is an eight-week summer program that selects 20-30 Latino college students from across New Jersey, who are placed in internships and participate in weekly leadership workshops to build professional networks and key skills. The participants meet over 100 Hispanic role models from the public and private sector.

“The workshops are held at the sites of many corporate partners where fellows have the opportunity to interact and learn from professionals across many different fields,” says Brianna Vera, educational program manager at HISPA and a former participant in the Governor’s Hispanic Fellows Program. Topics include resumé building, how to effectively use LinkedIn, and emotional intelligence in the professional world.

“Attending these workshops and interacting with professionals were invaluable to me as a student because they taught me real life skills that would help me start my career — skills that, frankly, I did not learn through my college,” says Vera.

There is also HISPA’s Latinos in College, a leadership development program for mostly first-year, first-generation students. It’s six to eight sessions spread out over the academic year in which topics like navigating college and getting an internship are explored. It is currently based at Rider University and New Jersey Institute of Technology and is being introduced at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey this year. In addition, cohorts of Hispanic college students are being developed to become role models for the middle schoolers.

Maintaining momentum

HISPA’s Youth Conferences resumed this year after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization partners with a local university to host a full-day event. Volunteers are university representatives and employees from partner companies. Participating students, a mix of middle schoolers and high school students, are introduced to STEM studies and careers and are given a feel for college life through various speakers and workshops. It is the first visit to a college campus for many of the students. Campuses visited this year include University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Rider University. About 200 students attended each event.

HISPA has received several awards and recognitions for its impact, including the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring in 2020. In 2015, it received The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics’ Bright Spot in Hispanic Education honor.

As HISPA advances its mission, Diaz-Claisse says she is grateful for the corporate partners and donors across the U.S. that work with them, including in-kind support. One company gave the organization office space, and another provided printing services.

In addition to New Jersey, HISPA is active in New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Diaz-Claisse says the organization’s model can be replicated, so when a company reaches out offering to fund programs in another location, it is doable. Some aspects are coordinated by the staff in New Jersey, and there are consultants in Florida and Texas who help manage the relationships with the schools. There are HISPA board members in diverse locations. And an advisory council is being put together. It comes down to mobilizing Latino professionals, she says, noting that some corporations look at HISPA as a volunteer management entity.

“HISPA provides volunteer opportunities for these employees,” says Diaz-Claisse. “It’s about engaging the volunteers, training them, giving them recognition, connecting them with the activities, and making it easy for them to step into classrooms to share their stories. The companies have really valued that.

"It’s about creating a sense of belonging in the corporation," she continues. "When the Latinos in the company come together to be role models for HISPA, they feel their company is supporting their community.”

HISPA is amassing success stories that will be presented on a platform called Inspirational Stories for Our Youth. There are currently over 200 stories that are recorded and being tested with high school students. Students can select the stories they want to hear based on details such as country of origin or obstacles faced.

Diaz-Claisse anticipates increasing programming for college students as she sees the positive impact of the current college programming and the need for ongoing inspiration and motivation.

“It has been a very solid approach to achieve our goal of eradicating the lack of role models and obstacles to achieve higher education of our Latino students,” says Diaz-Claisse.   

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