Fresno Pacific University wins federal $2.36 million grant to encourage Hispanic student success

Gina Ponce de León, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Spanish

A new grant provides resources to help take the “under” out of “underserved” regarding Hispanic students at Fresno Pacific University.

Gina Ponce de Leon, associate professor of Spanish, and Maribel Viveros, assistant director of institutional research, landed a five-year, $2.36 million U.S. Department of Education grant to encourage Hispanic and low-income students to enroll in and graduate from FPU. “Our objective is retention and student success,” said Ponce de Leon, project director.

FPU is one of 96 Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) receiving more than $51 million in new awards in 2015, according to the DOC release announcing the grants. HSI program grants help make college more attainable for Hispanic students and assist schools with faculty development, curriculum development, academic tutoring and mentoring. An HSI is as an institution of higher education with at least 25 percent Hispanic full-time equivalent undergraduate enrollment. FPU is already listed by The Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the nation’s top 10 HSIs in graduating Latino/a students.

“Hispanics will soon represent nearly one in three American workers, and in this competitive global marketplace, a skilled workforce is a necessity,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. More at

New center, new curriculum
The centerpiece of FPU’s program will be creating a Multicultural Learning Center, culturally embedded curriculum and, in the fourth year, a minor in Latin American studies. The center will be in Steinert Campus Center and contain information for students that encompasses all cultures, including Hispanic history and languages, and for professors on infusing Hispanic and other cultures into their classes. A staff will provide guidance and training. The location is intentional. “It’s in the heart of student action,” Viveros said.

Any course can be an example of culturally embedded curriculum, from general-education requirements to advanced majors’ classes, so long as at least 10-15 percent of the content is from a different culture. Faculty may apply for $3,000-4,000 stipends for professional development and materials.

The point is that the new content be truly integrated. “Including culture in the curriculum is not just adding pieces,” Ponce de Leon said.

Culturally embedded classes will benefit non-Hispanic students. “They will get the (benefit) of learning about their own environment,” said Ponce de Leon, echoing Duncan’s remarks about the large and growing Hispanic population.

Faculty on board
Sharon Merritt and Adam Schrag are two faculty are already working on applications. Merritt, Ph.D., assistant professor of education and director of the Master of Arts in Teaching program, wants to develop two new additions to the Spanish major to help majors become Spanish teachers and earn a single-subject credential. This is a growing area of interest among FPU students studying the language.

The courses will help all Spanish majors understand the experiences and needs of the immigrant and first-generation students they will teach. “In this case culture-embedded curriculum works both ways,” Merritt said. “It will be a bridge between what we do in Spanish and what we do in education.”

One course will be on bilingualism and education in North America, looking at educational systems in the U.S. and Mexico. The other course will be in applied linguistics, focusing on issues in Spanish-language teaching and learning.

Schrag, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication, plans to expand the existing film studies class he teaches. “It’s a pretty traditional, pretty Western, pretty white curriculum,” Schrag said, but he would enjoy mixing three-four examples from the many Hispanic cinema traditions into the 15 films students study in a semester.

Mexico, Brazil and many other countries have film industries, each with its own history, aesthetic and approach. Schrag would use the grant to research, attend conferences and film festivals. “This is something I want to do anyway, but the grant gives me the space to do it and do it right,” he said.

This grant will help FPU become a better Hispanic-Serving Institution, according to Schrag. “Does the curriculum speak to every audience? This grant gives us a chance to develop that and think about that,” he said.

A year in the making
Ponce de Leon and Viveros met about a year ago at the Alliance of Hispanic Serving Institution Educators (AHSIE) grant institute. “I was looking for a grant project because I believe in the FPU mission and there was a shortage of resources. Gina had an idea to integrate culture into the university through curriculum and professional development,” Viveros said.

Administrators, deans and faculty supported the idea, and Viveros and Ponce de Leon met weekly for six months to plan and four months to write the proposal. They combined Viveros’ strength in research with Ponce de Leon’s in academics. “At the heart of it we’re both just passionate about seeing all our students succeed,” Viveros said.



Wayne Steffen
Associate Director of Publications and Media Relations