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Alejandra Ceja, Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics
From her earliest days as a policymaker, Alejandra Ceja has gotten the same professional advice: Do not get pigeonholed by your ethnicity. Her advisers meant to take broad-based jobs dealing with broad issues. That, they said, would lead to the broadest opportunities.
So she did just that, taking on a series of roles deep inside Washington’s policy-making machinery. In May, President Obama named her executive director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Excellence in Education, which, as it turns out, is consistent with the advice she has long followed.
As for Ceja, her new job is as mainstream as they come, in no small part because Hispanics are crucial and pivotal to the country. Hispanics are the nation’s largest and fastest-growing minority group. The 11 million Latino students in U.S. public schools make up more than 22 percent of the overall pre-K-12 population.
In her job, Ceja is a key cog in an effort to bolster the educational outcome of Latino students. The president has set a goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020—which will be unattainable unless the nation’s Hispanics population has better access to educational opportunities. It is Ceja’s job to help increase the graduation rates of Hispanic students and encourage community engagement to help achieve the administration’s goal.
"Alejandra is a trusted advisor and leader in the Hispanic community," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "As director of this important initiative, Alejandra will continue her exceptional work of pursuing academic excellence and opportunities for Hispanics across the country."
It is a job for which Ceja is well prepared. Previously, she worked as chief of staff to Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, a job in which she oversaw Kanter’s personnel and budget, which were focused on meeting President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Before that, she was senior budget and appropriations advisor for the House Committee on Education and Labor. There, she drafted legislation in support of national service reauthorization—the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act—and worked on policy issues related to child nutrition, English language learners, migrants, Impact Aid and appropriations. In the past, she has also worked as a program examiner for the White House Office of Management and Budget, where she helped write the budget for the Department of Labor and the Corporation for National and Community Service. She has also worked for the Indianapolis Private Industry Council and in the Washington office of California Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.
A native of Huntington Park, Calif., Ceja holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, and a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College at the City University of New York. She is a graduate of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Public Policy Fellowship, the Presidential Management Fellows program, the National Hispana Leadership Institute and the National Urban Fellows program.
"I look forward to advancing the mission and goals of the initiative and helping to prepare Hispanics achieve their potential academically, professionally, civically, and globally," Ceja said. "We've got a lot of work to do because ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to seek an academic degree is vital to our country’s success."
Indeed, Hispanics have been graduating high school and moving on to higher education in increasing numbers in recent years. However, their educational achievement still lags behind the nation as a whole. In addition, Hispanics are underrepresented in the nation’s exciting and fast-growing science, technology, engineering and mathematics professions—something the Obama administration is working to combat.
Also, while college enrollment of Hispanics more than doubled between 1995 and 2009, those students are clustering in the nation’s open access colleges that have few admission requirements and typically offer students fewer resources than do the nation’s 468 selective colleges, and universities, according to a recent report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
Ceja will play a big role in trying to change those things. US Hispanic Engineer and Information Technology magazine recently had an opportunity to interview her. The conversation follows here:
HE&IT: Why did you want this job? Ceja: I have been in D.C. since 1996. I came on a fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and my whole point of coming out here was to learn policy. All the advice I had received was, “You don’t want to be the Latina expert. You don’t want to get pigeonholed.” But it’s my community and I am very passionate about education and how it impacts the Latino community. So I took technical, high-profile positions that were very broad. So when this position came about I felt like I have worn that policy hat, that budget hat and worked on very broad issues and now I have the opportunity to help. This is like a dream job. Now in my career I don’t have to worry about getting pigeonholed. Now I can embrace it and do it full-time. And I can give back to my community and all the people who have guided my career and, hopefully, help nurture future leaders.
HE&IT: What are your top goals? Ceja: Our agenda is really focused on that cradle-to-career approach. We have seen some gains in the high school graduation rate. We also have seen some gains in college enrollment. I really want to make a push for gains in college completion. I want to get more of our Latino students graduating from college and entering the workforce. We are going to make a big push on early learning. We want to increase awareness in the Latino community that our kids need to get a head start and these early learning programs provide them with that foundation. Then, on the K-12 side, trying to bring more emphasis to being college and career ready. We want our students when they are in junior high to already start thinking about what colleges they are interested in. Obviously, it is keeping our eyes on that prize. We have to get more of our students into the pipeline so they can graduate. So for us, it is really that cradle-to-career approach so everything we do is focused on success from pre-school on.
HE&IT: What do you perceive as the biggest obstacle preventing even more Hispanic students from being successful in school? Ceja: We are obviously having a lot of conversations around access and affordability. We want to make sure that students know what resources are available from the federal government to help them pay for college. There is also concern about student debt and we have to help students be more financially aware at earlier stages. That said, the biggest obstacle right now is increasing the awareness that this goal is within reach; that you can go to college. I think that, for us, that family engagement piece is so critical to our conversation. You want to make sure that these kids have that support system. I came from a very overcrowded public school in Los Angeles, but I had the benefit of older siblings who were trailblazers for me. I also had a college counselor who knew my other siblings, and she was like, “You are going to go to college.” But we don’t have enough high school counselors, so stuff like that I think our office can help with by having conversations with parents. One of the things I want to do is re-engage the philanthropic community in investing in education in low-income, underserved communities. Because that is where our kids need the most assistance.
HE&IT: Georgetown University’s Center of Education and the Workforce recently released a report saying that while Black and Hispanic students are gaining better access to higher education, they are disproportionately going to schools that have minimal admissions requirements. Students at those schools tend to graduate in lower percentages than similarly qualified students in the nation’s 468 selective schools. Also, those that graduate go on to earn, on average, less money in their careers. First, is this a concern? And what can be done about it? Ceja: I haven’t seen the report, but we want every child to have access to quality education. I think this is a shared responsibility. I want to bring attention to that. We want to provide all students with a valuable education so we have a workforce that is prepared. I think for us the unique opportunity our office has is we can have those conversations at the federal level, helping to engage the community. You know, we want a level playing field for all students. We want every student to know the difference between an Ivy League school, a community college, a for-profit. All of these schools play an important role in providing opportunities for our students. But we just want to make sure that everyone has that level playing field where they can contribute to our workforce because they have been prepared.
HE&IT: How do you break that cycle of inequality that seems to exist throughout our society where students end up reflecting the educational and socio-economic status of their parents? Ceja: I think the conversation on the fact that this is a shared responsibility. Community support is key. What we do in our high schools, the support from guidance counselors. The ability to have our students take SAT prep classes. The ability to engage parents. For us, whether it is a four-year school or community college, or a career technical training program, we want to be sure that we close that opportunity gap. We want students and parents to make informed decisions. The role of our office in engaging with stakeholders. The role of our schools. We can continue to invest in programs and efforts like the Pell Grant, and simplifying the FAFSA [financial aid form]. But without that community support, we will continue to have these challenges.
HE&IT: What can you do to get more Latino students into the STEM pipeline? Ceja: The president has a very aggressive STEM agenda and one of the things we are trying to do is increase awareness of what a STEM education can mean. How do we attract students and get rid of that perception that only the “smart kids” are good in math and science? I think that is helped by local partnerships working with students early on. Introducing them to the STEM field so they know what a STEM degree can mean for their future and the kind of opportunities that it can provide. The president wants to develop STEM innovation networks, where you would give grants to local education agencies that partner with institutions of higher education to increase the number of students in STEM working with our Hispanic-serving institutions. There are some institutions graduating more Latino students in the STEM field, really bringing attention to what’s working and who is doing it right, while introducing more students to the STEM field.
HE&IT: Given the state of relations between the president and his Republican opponents, what are the actual chances of getting any of his initiatives that can help on this enacted? Ceja: My thing is education is not a partisan issue, it is a shared responsibility. Members of Congress have supported investments in higher education. We have to continue having those conversations across the aisle. I am reaching out to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle when I go out around the country. I want them to understand what our office does and the services we provide. So we’re reaching across the aisle and we have to work together. Understanding the reality of the politics and trying to balance the budget and the deficit conversations, these members of Congress have come to the table with the president and agreed on investments in education. For my office what is critical is we are starting to see the data in terms of the projections of where this country is going to be by 2050 and the growth in terms of the Latino population, so I have to make sure that every member regardless of party understands the growth of this community and the importance of making sure we are preparing that future workforce. We can’t get the president goal of having our country have the best educated workforce in the world if we don’t include the Hispanic community.
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