Internship Program Opens Doors For Hispanics
By Matt Holder
There is a folktale, applied to many cultures, wherein a little boy asks a fisherman why one basket of crabs requires a lid, while another basket does not; the answer is that crabs will help one another get out of the basket if they belong to one class, but will pull each other down if they belong to the other. The social criticism is unmistakable.
Daniel Macias, a Mexican-American, recently told the story of the "Mexican crabs" as a speaker at a Freddie Mac forum on diversity. Macias, 24, is a financial analyst intern in the Office of Loan Repayment and Scholarship in the Office of the Director. He says the story reminds him of events in his own life. When he began college at California State University, San Bernardino, his high school friends, who began working right away, were less than supportive of his higher education. "They were putting negative thoughts in my head, questioning whether school was the best thing for me to be doing," he said. "It wasn't the positive reinforcement I needed especially being the first in my family to go to college."
He felt like they were pulling him down, just like the crabs in the folktale.
Macias recognizes that some "Mexican crabs" may have the best of intentions perhaps trying to protect one another from the unknown, possibly dangerous world outside the basket.
"When I started college," he said, "my parents, even though they cared for me, gave me grief for being away from the house for study groups, meetings, and traveling for conferences things that were bettering me. Without even knowing it, they were pulling me down."
Macias is one of nearly 630 students who participated in the National Internship Program of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) last year. HACU developed the program in 1992 to give undergraduate and graduate students job experience in the federal government and to help federal agencies create a pipeline for hiring Hispanics. The program caught the attention of private corporations who now also hire HACU interns.
Freddie Mac asked HACU to recommend an intern who could add a youth perspective to their "Celebrating Diversity" forum, held during Hispanic Heritage Month last October. HACU recommended Macias, and his supervisor, OLRS Director Marc Horowitz, endorsed his participation.
Hispanics underrepresented in government
Macias is not the only Hispanic who has felt trapped, pulled down or who has faced difficulty achieving success; this seems to be an acute problem within the federal workforce, including NIH.
Recently, the Office of Personnel Management sent a report to the President stating that Hispanics are the only underrepresented minority group in the federal workforce. According to the report, Hispanics represent 12.5 percent of the general population and 11.8 percent of the national civilian labor force, but only 6.6 percent of permanent federal employees. Moreover, the gap is increasing.
The percentage of Hispanics at NIH is even smaller just over 3 percent, according to Milton Belardo, Hispanic Employment Program manager in NIH's Office of Equal Opportunity.
There is good news however. "The federal government has a fantastic opportunity right now," says William Gil, executive director of HACU's National Internship Program. "We have more Hispanics going to college than ever before." He says the federal government needs to promote itself to students, and he points out that internships are an excellent way of doing that.
According to Gil, HACU has arranged 3,300 internships the vast majority in the federal government and most in the Washington, D.C., area since 1992. Employers offered about 74 percent of the interns future employment opportunities.
Having a HACU intern has certainly been a positive experience for OLRS. While recruiting science students at a HACU meeting in 1999, Horowitz met a number of "gifted and eager" college students who were interested in accounting, administration, business and finance. "I thought HACU could be a valuable resource to identify interns whose interests would match our programmatic needs, and indeed that is the case," he says. "After my experience with this intern, I would have no second thoughts about recruiting from HACU again."
Exposure to the federal government also seems to increase the likelihood that interns will work for the government in the future. Based on evaluations of last summer's cohort, HACU reports that only about 50 percent considered working for the federal government before the internship. After the internship, the number rose to 80 percent.
Macias, who is currently taking a semester off from an M.B.A. program at Cal State, San Bernardino, is a good example of this. He enjoys his work so much that he is considering transferring to the University of Maryland while continuing to work at NIH. Not only has he applied for a permanent position in OLRS, but he has also begun assisting with the outreach and recruitment of other Hispanics to the office. He says, "There's a lot of room for opportunity and growth that I had no idea about."
He also says his responsibilities at NIH give him a chance to apply what he learned in college. He is evaluating a user's manual for the OLRS's Management Information System, as well as suggesting improvements for the MIS itself. He is also learning the financial analysis and sophisticated calculations that the system performs, and he is performing audits of program participants.
His time in Washington is also likely to influence his final decision. Living far away from his home and family in California has been a new and challenging experience, but also a positive and exciting one. He and his roommates, who are also HACU interns, have taken advantage of the opportunity to see and do new things, including visiting Atlantic City, Harper's Ferry, New York City, and going white-water rafting in Pennsylvania.
Regardless of where he decides to live, he plans to get more hands-on experience while continuing his graduate education, and his ultimate goal is to have his own consulting firm working with start-up and minority companies and non-profit organizations that help develop these companies.
Macias offers the following advice to other Hispanics and minorities: "Take advantage of all the opportunities available to you. There were people before us who didn't have those opportunities, so it's up to us to do so." His advice resonates with the motto of the HACU National Internship Program: Abriendo las puertas de oportunidad Opening the doors of opportunity.
NIH supervisors interested in hiring a HACU intern (there are currently a dozen on campus) should contact Dr. Lorrita Watson at 594-7784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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