One of my favorite summer activities is meeting the students and families who participate in Fort Hays State University’s Hispanic College Institute (HCI). For the past several years we have intentionally focused on initiatives which enhance opportunities, access, and support for Hispanic students to succeed in college. HCI is our most valuable contribution to fulfilling our promise. Why is this timely? Ten counties in the southwest corner of Kansas have more than twice the percentage of Hispanic population than the state average. This past year, some of the regional high school senior classes were comprised primarily of Hispanic students: 81 percent in Liberal; 77 percent in Ford County; 65 percent in Garden City. Clearly, the education of this population is critical to the success of our state.

We are leading the way in meeting the higher educational needs of this growing population in Kansas and across the Midwest. HCI has already engaged over 275 Hispanic high school juniors and seniors from across the states of Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.

The HCI is a free, four-day residential program that prepares Hispanic high school students to enter and succeed in higher education. It is designed to bring in Hispanic educators and community leaders from all over the Midwest to build confidence in HCI students. The majority of the curriculum provides opportunities to get connected with Hispanic community leaders, college students, and university leaders who can relate to the students’ experiences and challenges. All students go through the college application process, learn about scholarship opportunities and financing college, and participate in mock classes and academic programs. They also take part in community service projects and create an issues-to-action presentation to cultivate our institutional mission to build engaged citizen-leaders.

The Institute is also valuable for the Hispanic students who are already Tigers and who serve as HCI Tiger Team leaders. Many were participants in the Institute when they were in high school, and now they help guide, support and inspire the students who will come after them. At the same time, they gain real-life experience as leaders and mentors, and practice the joy of “paying it forward.”

Each year, the university also brings in a dynamic keynote speaker and role model. This year’s students had the opportunity to learn from Oscar Rodriquez Jr., a 2005 FHSU graduate. Oscar, a native of Liberal, played football at Fort Hays State as a safety while earning his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health. He has just started his first season as the Zips’ secondary coach at the University of Akron. In 2015, Bruce Feldman from Fox Sports highlighted his heroic comeback from cancer to resume his coaching career.

Oscar was an NFL Bill Walsh Fellowship participant in 2018 with the Chicago Bears, and he has coached and mentored seven student athletes who are playing in the NFL. As an engaged citizen-leader, Oscar founded the Coaches Against Cancer Foundation and is involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

Of course, my absolute favorite part of the HCI is listening to student stories. I was captivated by the students’ honesty about what they were learning and the deep friendships they were forming. Grace Johnson (Wichita), a rising junior at Bishop Carroll High School, spoke with great enthusiasm and affection about the value of experiencing college life from living in a residence hall, being in a classroom, and touring a college town. I was especially pleased with how the Institute incorporates the city of Hays, because I know our close-knit community fuels the success of students through a deep and sincere connection.

I smiled as Grace described the late night conversations with her HCI roommate and the lasting friendships she formed with her small group – called a familia. She talked about the confidence she gained in her leadership, communication, teamwork, problem solving and conflict management skills, and about how she felt more prepared for college life. Grace shared: “I didn’t know coming into HCI how to deal with conflict. Now, I know not only how to avoid it, but to work through it with others.”

Most importantly, I loved listening to students capture the essence of why we invest so much into programs like the HCI: “I am more compelled than ever to go to college, succeed, and graduate” said Grace.

The education of students matters to us. We get to know students and help them discover their talents and their dreams. With each conversation, we see their potential and are inspired to walk with them and to challenge them. We provide access to the opportunity to learn and to thrive. The HCI is just one of many examples of how we deliver on America’s promise to help people and communities prosper.

Tisa Mason is president of Fort Hays State University/