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Cross-Boundary Leader: Sarita Brown (TX EPFP 83-84)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Friday, September 18, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader: Sarita Brown
(TX EPFP 83-84)

Sarita Brown is president of Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit organization that accelerates Latino success in higher education by linking research, policy, and practice to serve Latino students. Prior to co-founding Excelencia in Education in 2004, Brown was appointed as executive director of the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans under President Bill Clinton and Secretary of Education Richard Riley. She began her career at the University of Texas at Austin building a national model promoting minority success in graduate education. Brown is on the board of directors for ACT, Catch the Next, and Editorial Projects in Education.

Supporting Latino Student Success in Higher Education

The biggest change I’ve seen in the support for Latino students’ success in higher education over the last decade has been the growth of the number of education leaders, policymakers, and investors who understand the importance of addressing this topic. In the last 10 years, it has become much more common for people to talk about the Latino community and make the point that they are our future workforce and contributors to civic leadership. This has been great—but it’s still just people talking and not doing much about it. I want to see more of this conversation being translated into action.

Another big change in the last decade has been the dominance of the linking of immigration and Latinos. Understanding of who immigrants are, the impact of immigration in American society, and the proportion of America’s Latino community that are recent immigrants has become increasingly distorted. I don’t believe this is intentional by the media or advocates, but many people who don’t think about immigration much or don’t work on the issue on a daily basis seem to believe all Latinos are immigrants and undocumented, which is inaccurate. Over 90 percent of today’s Latino students in K-12 and postsecondary education are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. When I speak publicly, I’m assertive about this point and try to help people realize there are so many things that higher education and public education can do to better respond to Latino students and families that have nothing to do with changes to the country’s immigration policies or to students’ immigration status.

What Policymakers and Higher Education Leaders Should Know

Since launching Excelencia in Education in 2004, we’ve worked to demystify who the Latino population is, where Latino students are located, what institutions are graduating larger numbers of Latino students, and the practices and factors of these institutions that are helping Latino students thrive. Our research covers the state of Latinos in education from early childhood all the way through professional education. It’s all data-driven so policymakers and higher education leaders can find that helpful to gain a better understanding of who these students are and what they need to succeed.

Our goal is to inform policymakers and higher education leaders. We advocate but do not lobby. Through our research, we can highlight the nexus of where higher education and policymakers need to intervene to ensure Latino student success. By presenting this information, we work to connect policymakers to the institutions that have used effective and innovative strategies to help Latino students graduate and build significant skills.

Another issue we try to bring to the attention of policymakers is the challenge of meeting the financial needs of low-income students attending college. Financial aid and the fact that the current model of aid does not reach all high school students who need it is a focus of ours. This was actually how we put Excelencia in Education on the map in 2005, with our report, How Latino Students Pay for College. We found that while Latinos were applying for financial aid, they were receiving the least amount of aid, regardless of need. So we asked policymakers why is this is happening, what do we do about it, and what does this mean for Latino students? Latino students need support while they are enrolled in a college or university, but they also need the appropriate financial resources to be able to get there.

Leading Across Sectors

Working across sectors gives you the opportunity to have a more significant impact. Each sector has its own language and perspective, and it’s challenging to find people who are “multilingual” in that they are proficient across multiple sectors, so it is important for leaders to be able to have knowledge about sectors other than their own. If you’re trying to make change happen, you have to have people in different sectors be willing to reach across, build bridges, learn together, and develop functional relationships so things get done. Ten years ago this was seen as a really innovative, novel idea, but now it’s a required skill set.

However, that doesn’t make it any less challenging, especially since change happens so quickly today. Leaders need to be able to prioritize, and know what the next important issue is and which individuals can be connected to work together toward a common goal—all at the same time. We used to talk about a year-long program being fast, and now projects are happening in 3-6 months. This means leaders need to be forward-thinking, adaptable, and open to making connections.

Leadership Lessons Learned

I’ve learned that it’s important to stay true to yourself. I was very lucky to find a cause early in my career that became a life calling. Staying true isn’t about being dogmatic or unwilling to learn from ideas and challenges—you definitely still have to adapt to new and sometimes difficult environments and situations—but it’s about understanding what you want to change and staying on the path to continue doing that.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that leadership is fundamentally about how effectively you engage and inspire other people to share your vision. Clear articulation about what you want to accomplish is key. Sometimes it seems that only the one in front and the great speaker are recognized as leaders. I think true leadership is demonstrated by the capacity to bring others along and reach your goal together. A quieter, humbler kind of leadership that moves people to act is valuable. Leadership is about inspiring, catalyzing, and bringing others along.

EPFP Experience

My experience in EPFP was very significant to my career. Because it was early in my career, I was introduced to leaders across the country that I wouldn’t have otherwise met at that time. I still have friends and colleagues from my program who I’ve kept in touch with through all these years. For me, EPFP was a systematic way to go through the skill sets, issues, and opportunities that were important to education and to my work. It also gave me the opportunity to learn about myself as a professional and part of a community wanting to affect change, which was quite significant. Because of EPFP, I came to better understand my role and future opportunities as I decided what I wanted to accomplish in the big picture of national and regional education issues.

EPFP’s Value Today and in the Future

I’m a big believer in intentionality—having something like EPFP, particularly with its history, is very intentional. It adapts and grows while asserting a view that education is a worthy calling, an enterprise based on human experiences, and that leaders are people who are connecting with each other to make it happen. You learn from different components of EPFP and what makes the program so significant is that it offers them all together and provides a community that IEL has systematically maintained. To me, all of that is intentionality—beginning with an idea and committing to cultivate and sustain it even as education changes.


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