Trinity University political science professor Juan Sepúlveda’s life has been chock-full of incredible experiences. He’s Trinity’s Calgaard Distinguished Professor of Practice, was a former member of the Obama administration and a member of the Biden-Harris transition team, and served as a senior vice president at PBS—and that’s after earning degrees from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford.
But what’s one experience even Sepúlveda wishes he’d had when he was a young student?
It’s attending a program like the Latinx on Fast Track (LOFT) Leadership Institute—a partnership between Trinity University and the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF) that Sepúlveda and HHF CEO/President Antonio Tijerino launched in Summer 2021. The institute brings together some of the top Latinx graduating high school seniors in the country for an interactive series of seminars on leadership, community-building, and career exploration.
“I would have loved to have something like this as a kid,” says Sepúlveda. “All the networks and the communities I’ve built over my career, a program like this brings those together before you’ve even hit college. I told the LOFT participants, ‘I hope you guys like each other, because no matter where you go, or what you do, you’re going to be running into each other a lot!’”
LOFT serves the youth recognized by the Hispanic Heritage Youth Awards, an HHF program that brings together the most talented 270 Latinx students in the country—out of a field of more than 30,000 nominees—who receive a grant to continue their education or to support a community-based project or idea. Sepúlveda launched LOFT with the goal of getting those students interacting both with each other and with Latinos and Latinas who are already stars in their prospective career fields.
These 270 students, once selected, were organized into nine career tracks, sponsored by nine industry players: health care and science (CVS Health), engineering (BP), tech (T-Mobile), education (Southwest Airlines), public service (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute), finance (East Los Capital), entrepreneurship (TikTok), and social justice (Nike). Students in each track then heard from guest speakers representing those fields as well as formed friendships and ties with each other.
“Most of these students don’t have these types of networks built already,” Sepúlveda says. “They need to be able to see and meet the people who have gone into these fields before them.”
Sepúlveda says students in each of these tracks got to “take a deep dive” into these career fields, asking big questions of the guest speakers: “What does it really mean to be an entrepreneur? What does it really mean to be in education?” But in the fashion of a true liberal arts faculty member, Sepúlveda also excelled at constructing the program to highlight the connections between disciplines. “We got students thinking about how these tracks connect, how there’s crossover,” Sepúlveda says. “Trinity is a small, liberal arts college. We make connections. That’s how we see the world. People are willing to go deep into their subjects, but our students weren’t thinking about being in silos.”
Additionally, Sepúlveda enlisted Trinity students to act as mentors for the LOFT Leadership Institute participants. "I wanted to honor them as ‘older brother and sister’ figures," Sepúlveda says. "And this way, our students got to be part of the networking too. I want them to connect to all the corporations and sectors and to students. I wanted them to have that leadership experience."
It’s no surprise, then, that Thomás Peña ’22 and Sabrina Cuauro Cuauro ’23 both emerged from the program with a renewed sense of identity, direction, and vision for the future.
Peña, a double major in finance and business analytics and technology from Roma, Texas, was paired with LOFT students in the technology track. “It’s the intersection of everything I study, so it was a great chance for me to take that relevant experience and help the students out,” he says.
The biggest advice Peña had for the LOFT attendees was about finding a sense of belonging. “I was blown away by these students… taken aback by how accomplished they were,” Peña says. “But even having all these accomplishments, everyone always has a sense of imposter syndrome. I got to talk about when I was in their position, first getting to college: Did I belong here?”
Peña continues, “It can be a learning curve to believe that your presence at school, at an internship, in a job, is deserved. And when I got my internship at Dell Technologies, my manager told me, ‘Hey, you’re always the third person to talk. Let yourself be seen and be heard.’ That speaks to so much of the Latino experience and the importance of representation. A program like the LOFT Institute shows us Latino leaders from Facebook, Apple, and we’re hearing about how they created a community wherever they’ve gone. It is a really positive message.”
Juan Sepúlveda discusses mentorship opportunities with the LOFT program with Sabrina Cuaro Cuaro and Tomás Peña.
Cuauro Cuauro is a psychology, global Latinx studies, and Spanish triple major from Katy, Texas, who was matched with the health care and science track. She says the LOFT Institute represents just one step among many that Trinity is making to continue to build communities for Latinos and Latinas on campus.
“I came to Trinity because it was a small liberal arts university, and I didn’t learn about the history of the Latinx community until I got here,” Cuauro Cuauro says. “I became a global Latinx studies major right at a time when I felt unsure of my identity. I joined Dr. Sepúlveda’s Latinx leadership class, which has made a huge difference for me. And I’m currently the president of the Trinity University Latino Association.”
But getting to network with the LOFT students—hailing from a nationwide network—was an entirely new type of community-building experience for Cuauro Cuauro. “What stood out to me the most was the potential these students had,” she says. “They have already accomplished so much. And hearing their stories as to why they wanted to go into health care, I was inspired by them. So many of them have had experiences with family members who had an illness and were treated differently or encountered different obstacles because of their identity.”
For a student interested in a career in clinical psychology, this hit close to home for Cuauro Cuauro. “Mental illness can present differently in people of different identities, who have different stigmas surrounding these issues,” she says. “And so much of the existing research in psychology isn’t ‘cross cultural, so I want to do research that focuses on different people’s perspectives.”
The LOFT Leadership Institute, which is currently taking applications for Summer 2022, aims to keep growing, according to Sepúlveda.
“I want to expand the program to bring high school students to Trinity earlier, before they’re seniors,” Sepúlveda says. “This year we were remote, so I would love to do more of this in person. I would love to bring [the students] all to Trinity, as well as to [Washington ]D.C. to the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. We’re also looking at expanding with more sponsors and adding a sports and fitness track. I want our network to grow, and as more students come back and do the program with us, I want them to be the ones leading sessions, helping run the whole thing.”
These are lofty goals, Sepúlveda notes, but the right goals for a university like Trinity that’s trying to build a better network for its Latinx students. “If we want to be a national player with Latino leaders, we need to do more national programs like we’ve done with LOFT,” he says. “And it’s such a huge benefit to have Trinity students helping us lead, helping us run these programs.”
While Trinity did not have any incoming students as participants in the LOFT Leadership Institute, Sepúlveda says future editions of the program will benefit from having voices like Cuauro Cuauro and Peña on board.
And as these two can attest, this benefit is a two-way street. “The relationships Dr. Sepúlveda has built with major players in these career fields, we’re able to ask them questions, hear their stories, hear how they’ve made it. This was really inspiring,” Cuauro Cuauro says.
“I feel really confident that I have the skills I need; I belong here,” Peña says. “I would say that after four years at Trinity, and being through programs like the Latinx Leadership class, the Trinity University Latino Association, and now LOFT, it’s not that these things changed my identity: My identity has been amplified.”
In December 2021, Trinity University named Juan Sepúlveda as its first President’s Special Adviser for Inclusive Excellence. The leadership role, first envisioned and recommended by the President’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force's August 2020 report, is tasked with the administration, management, coordination, and implementation of campus-wide programming that promotes diversity and fosters inclusion and access for students, employees, alumni, and other stakeholders.