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Rutgers Institute Establishes Pipeline for Latino Leaders

After examining the plight of young women and Latinos in New Jersey, Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago wanted to design a summer internship program that would encourage more minorities and female students to attend graduate school.

“I saw a decline in the number of minority students, particularly Latino students, who were going to graduate school. My work has really been about social justice and really building leadership and capacity building for minority communities in the area of leadership development,” says Bonilla-Santiago, the Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor of Urban Studies at Rutgers University’s Camden campus. “The vision was to really create a pipeline program for Latino leaders. A lot of our Latino young leaders were not really entering into positions of influence.”

In 1990, she established the Latino Fellows Public Policy Leadership Institute. As a component of the university’s Center for Strategic Urban Community Leadership, which she also created, the institute is designed to encourage Hispanic students to pursue graduate studies in public policy with the long-term goal of increasing the presence of Latinos in leadership positions throughout the country, says Bonilla-Santiago.

In addition to a weekly leadership training seminar, participants attend an internship four days a week during the summer. Internships are located throughout the state of New Jersey and include government, private sector and nonprofit opportunities. Bonilla-Santiago also notes that the leadership institute provides mentorship opportunities and recruiting events where participants meet with graduate school representatives from colleges across the country. She adds that the leadership institute is funded by the state’s Department of Community Affairs and the Center for Hispanic Policy, Research & Development.

“It’s interdisciplinary so the students learn issues of professional development and problem solving … how to understand the economy and how to better understand the social conditions in their communities,” says Bonilla-Santiago, who adds over 500 students have graduated from the program since its inception.

Angie Armand, director of the Center for Hispanic Policy, notes that officials have not yet conducted an extended analysis of the summer program. However, of the 135 participants who responded to a recent survey, about 15 percent went on to earn master’s degrees and 5 percent have earned a doctoral degree.

Wanda Garcia, associate director of the Center for Strategic Community Leadership, says the leadership program is becoming more competitive each year. Last year, the center received over 200 applications to fill about 30 spots. This year, officials are expecting an even greater response before the March deadline.

“It is purposely kept small for the quality. We try to complement the experience they are getting at the job site with their leadership skills,” Armand adds.

Officials at the university’s center also hope that the leadership institute will aid in the revival of Camden, long considered one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country.

“It (the leadership institute) is providing Latino students from this area of the state with a real valuable summer opportunity where they get some practical experience working in a professional setting, whether it’s in government or in the private or nonprofit sector. They get a chance to see just beyond the city,” says Garcia. She points out that participants also have the opportunity to meet with other young Latino professionals and learn valuable strategies on how to strengthen the minority community.

“We hope that a lot of them will go back to their hometown … they’ll be the ones doing great things in the city and in the region. This is another outlet to train the future leadership of the city,” she says.

–Dana Forde

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