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NMSU, UTEP collaborate to expand CAHSI mission with $2.8 million NSF grant

Release Date: 06 Apr 2022
NMSU, UTEP collaborate to expand CAHSI mission with $2.8 million NSF grant

Since 2006, New Mexico State University has collaborated with the University of Texas at El Paso and a number of other universities across the country in the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions (CAHSI), broadening participation in computing. The goal of the alliance is to develop best practices and collaborations to allow HSIs across the country to increase the number of Hispanic students earning computer science credentials and advancing to rewarding careers in computing. The overarching goal of CAHSI can be summarized as “20 by 30” – by 2030, Hispanics will represent 20 percent or more of those who earn credentials in computing.

Previous National Science Foundation grants allowed CAHSI to build a national scale infrastructure with four regions: north, southeast, southwest and west. NMSU serves as the lead institution for the Southwest region which includes Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, geographical areas with the highest presence of Hispanics. The alliance now counts more than 60 institutions across the country.

Each region has a lead and a connector. Enrico Pontelli, NMSU dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Regents Professor in computer science, is the lead, while Raena Cota, program manager, is the connector for the CAHSI Southwest region. Cota explained, “The objectives of the current CAHSI project are to expand students’ research knowledge exposing them to research as a career pathway as well as involving upper-division students in research experiences that prepare them for graduate-level research, in addition to building our graduate programs to lead our Hispanic students to succeed in their graduate studies.”  

The current Alliance Extension grant for $2.8 million aims to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who pursue and complete graduate degrees in computing areas, in particular Hispanics and women. This goal is supported by a broad range of initiatives, focused on promoting and sustaining research experiences for undergraduate students and developing cohorts of doctoral students collaborating across multiple institutions within the alliance. To support this goal, the alliance has increased the participation of doctoral-granting Hispanic-Serving Institutions, with particular focus on institutions ranked as R1 (very high research activity) by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

“One of the things we clearly saw is that if we want to make a difference through engaging Hispanic students, we need Hispanic role models,” said Pontelli. “And that's a big problem because we have so few Hispanic faculty in computing. That’s where this effort comes into play. We want to encourage and support more students entering Ph.D. programs so that we create more computer science faculty.

“That is the systemic change we are looking for, to promote Hispanic students’ interest in research at the undergraduate level and encourage them toward acquiring a Ph.D. and connecting with other computer science Ph.D. students at the national level to encourage them to enter the professoriate down the road.”

Cassandra Ganska and Calicia Perea are NMSU computer science students on that road.

Ganska is a first-generation college student. Computer science was the last thing she would have thought of back in high school. In order to save money for college, Ganska got her EMT certification and worked for several years. She earned an associate’s degree in computer science from El Paso Community College before transferring to NMSU. She is a senior now and weighing her options after graduation, including working and grad school. She credits CAHSI program support with opening her eyes to possibilities she never might have considered.

“I think what has impacted me are the conferences that we attend with CAHSI, and in these conferences, there are a lot of minority people who speak about their experiences from their perspective,” Ganska said. “It was just really motivating. It really opened up my perspective, especially when all these companies are out there trying to recruit students, trying to find people and we're in demand.”

Perea, a junior computer science major, grew up in Albuquerque, raised by her great grandmother because her father was deployed during the war. Perea started at NMSU planning to be a nursing major but soon changed her mind after her first computer science course.

“I actually fell in love with it, the professor made it so fun,” Perea said. “Then I switched to CS. Going into CS, there was always somebody that you could talk to, whether it was older students or professors. I really was able to relate to them.”

Perea has been interning for the U.S. Army as a contractor and plans to accept a full-time job when she graduates next year. But she also plans to pursue a graduate degree in computer science.

“I think that CAHSI has really showed me a way that I could help people no matter where I come from or what my skin color, a way that essentially, we're all equal,” Perea said. “It really doesn't matter where you come from. If you have the mindset and the motivation to do something better for yourself, ultimately you can do it.”

“The CAHSI people have such a high belief in us and like it’s such a strong support system,” Ganska said. “As long as they see that you're putting in that effort and you’re doing the work, they're not going to give up on you.”

Pontelli is passionate about bringing freshmen into the fold as a pipeline to the Ph.D.

“This spring semester, we are encouraging freshmen students to get involved in research. Why? Because you cannot wait until they are a senior,” said Pontelli. “You start from day one to get them exposed to research topics so they begin to understand that research is fun, they can contextualize what they are learning in the classroom through research projects. It’s not just for academics, it’s for everyone.”

Over the next three years of the grant, the alliance expects to create a model for serving Hispanic students in graduate computing studies that can be used at any higher education institution to broaden participation in computing. The alliance will publish peer-reviewed papers on inclusive computer science models for Hispanic students in graduate programs as well as increase the number of students from underrepresented groups, particularly Hispanic U.S. citizens and permanent residents, who enter and are retained in computing graduate studies.

In addition, the project includes extended partnerships with industry, national research labs and non-profits that provide financial support for research preparation and studies.

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