Two UTPA programs honored among best in nation at increasing degree completion by Latinos
Posted: 10/05/2011
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Two programs at The University of Texas-Pan American were recognized Sept. 27 by Excelencia in Education as among the nation's top programs designed to increase degree completion among Latinos.

UT Pan American's Medical Spanish for Heritage Learners program and UNIV 1301 Learning Framework course were selected from among 195 competitors at the associate, bachelor's and graduate levels as two of 16 national finalists for the 2011 Examples of Excelencia recognition. Examples of Excelencia is a national initiative to identify and honor institution-based programs and departments that demonstrate with evidence that they effectively boost Latino enrollment, performance and graduation.

Top honors in each category went to the following: El Paso Community College, associate level, Early College High School Initiative; Texas Tech University, bachelor's level, STEP 2 (Successful Transition to Educator Preparation); and Carlos Albizu University, San Juan campus, graduate level, Ph.D. Clinical Psychology Program.

"For America to achieve President Obama's goal of becoming a world leader in college degrees by 2020, it is vital that we increase degree completion among Latinos," said Martha J. Kanter, U.S. Under Secretary of Education, who joined Excelencia in Education at the U.S. Capital in Washington, D.C. to recognize the top honorees and finalists.

Dr. Kristin Croyle, UTPA vice provost for undergraduate studies, said it is very gratifying to be nationally recognized for these two excellent programs.

"Here at UTPA we know we are doing great things to help our students be successful," she said.

Medical Spanish for Heritage Learners is a unique program leading to the nation's only academic minor in medical Spanish. Students with majors in the health sciences find in this program an opportunity to develop advanced language skills targeted for use in health care settings. Students in this program develop medical terminology in Spanish and explore methods of health education and promotion among Spanish-speaking populations.

"The Medical Spanish program is a clear example of UTPA's commitment to the needs of the Rio Grande Valley. We are ensuring that tomorrow's health care professionals have the language skills and cultural competency needed to successfully meet our region's major health challenges," said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, UTPA's dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.

There are more than 180 students currently enrolled in the program from a variety of majors including pre-med, pre-dental and pre-optometry, nursing, rehab, dietetics, psychology and others. Since it was initially offered in 2008, 73 students have completed the program. Of 15 medical science minors who completed a baccalaureate degree in May 2011, eight were accepted to the medical school of their choice, three are attending graduate school and four are employed as registered nurses.

The program's founder and director Dr. Glenn Martinez said it is popular with students because it resonates clearly with their own experiences.

"Every student in my classes has at one time or another helped a parent or grandparent communicate with a non-Spanish speaking health professional. Every student has a unique awareness of the disparities that these language barriers produce. This experience motivates them to want to become change agents in the health professions and to ensure that everyone receives quality health care regardless of the language that they speak," he said.

Miguel Setien, a premedical biology honors student, took the medical Spanish course three years ago when it was first offered. Setien, who hopes to become a cardiologist, said he has been able to make better translations from doctors for his non-English speaking relatives when they have had to seek medical care.

"The language barrier that exists in the medical field right now is not allowing the best outcomes for patients," Setien said. "Before I took this course, I had never discussed this problem ... one has a sense of commitment after going through this program ... to apply what you learn in the courses to be a better person and help your community by improving their health care."

The program has also improved the job prospects of UTPA students because they complete their degrees with a validation of their bilingual skills, Martinez said.

"By embedding targeted language training within undergraduate education, we are ensuring a critical mass of bilingual and bicultural health care professionals in a variety of areas," he said.

Two UTPA programs - Medical Spanish for Heritage Learners and UNIV 1301 Learning Framework - were recognized Sept. 27 by Excelencia in Education as among the nation's top programs designed to increase degree completion among Latinos.
UT Pan American's UNIV 1301 - Learning Framework course, which was initiated in fall 2004 and then required for all entering freshmen, is designed to help students understand the principles of learning and motivation and apply them to their own university experience. Besides promoting the active engagement of students in their learning, the ultimate goal of the course is to improve retention and graduation rates.

Since fall 2008, UTPA has required entering freshman students with an ACT score of 18 or less and not in the top 25 percent of their high school graduating class to enroll in the course during their first year in college. UTPA's retention rate for first-time, full-time entering freshmen has increased from 60 percent in 2000 to 73 percent in 2009, the greatest increase of all institutions of higher education in Texas - an accomplishment significantly attributable to the students' success in the Learning Framework course, University administrators said.

"The Learning Framework course is a great example of what the best college courses can be," said Croyle. "It has rigorous content that is immediately valuable to students, great faculty using innovative teaching strategies, and great students who are just adjusting to college level work. Our institutional data shows that completion of the Learning Frameworks course helps our students to stay in school through their sophomore and junior years and progress to graduation."

Haydee Villarreal, a senior majoring in English, took UNIV 1301 in 2009 when she returned to school after dropping out after she first entered the University in 2007. She said the class required her to make a binder to plan out the four years and the classes she was going to take.

"That helped me to know ahead of time what I am going to take, how long it was going to take me to graduate, and put a perspective on it so it felt more realistic," she said. "I also liked the textbook we used because it showed you a lot of study strategies."

Villarreal, who this year was selected to participate in a Latino leadership program at Harvard University, said she learned that graduation is something that is not impossible to accomplish. Villarreal now aspires to be a writer.

"With two programs as this year's finalists, The University of Texas-Pan American is at the forefront of meeting the challenge of improving higher educational achievement for Latino students, and we congratulate them for their current and continued efforts," said Sarita Brown, president of Excelencia in Education.

All the programs recognized during the CelebraciĆ³n de Excelencia 2011 event are listed in the latest edition of "What Works for Latino Students in Higher Education," released by Excelencia in Education and available for download at

Excelencia in Education is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization whose mission is to accelerate Latino student success in higher education.