Photo of Fransisco Sebastian outside of the High Ridge YMCA

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Francisco Sebastian always carries a pen and paper with him.

“A business deal can be done in a minute,” he likes to say.

Sebastian is a senior Accounting major at Northeastern Illinois University, a federally recognized Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) with four locations in the Chicago area. Sebastian also is a symbol of the changing demographics of the talent available to the business community.

While HSIs make up only 17 percent of higher education institutions, they graduate 66 percent of all Latinx undergraduate students. What does that mean? As the Hispanic population continues to grow, the future of the college-educated Latinx workforce in Chicago and beyond will pass through universities like Northeastern.

Sebastian’s father is an accountant, so a knack for numbers is in his blood.

“When other kids were out playing in the summer, my dad had me and my sibling learning a lot about finance,” Sebastian said. “He had us look at bank statements and do problems in workbooks to get a better understanding of math.”

Those math skills are being put to good use at Northeastern, where Sebastian is the treasurer of several student organizations, including Northeastern’s chapter of the Collegiate Entrepreneur Organization, or CEO club. He’s also spending this summer like those of his childhood—dealing with numbers. This time, though, he’s an accounting intern at the High Ridge YMCA in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

“Math is the language of companies,” Sebastian said.

That language is being honed at Northeastern, which earned HSI status in 1997 and is one of 14 HSIs in Illinois, according to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Over the past 10 years, the number of HSIs has grown 98 percent.

There are 523 HSIs across the continental United States and its territories. Unlike Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which earn their designation by being institutions of higher education that were established before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the intention of serving African-Americans, HSIs earn their classification based on the ethnic makeup of their student body. To earn HSI status, at least 25 percent of a higher education institution’s full-time undergraduate population must be Hispanic and at least 50 percent of all students must be eligible for Title IV financial aid, which consists of federally funded aid like the Federal Pell Grant.

“Since HSIs are not driven by a mission to serve Latinx students and the number of HSIs continues to grow, there is an increasing focus on how intentionally HSIs are serving the needs of Latinx students,” said Isaura Pulido, an associate professor and chair of Northeastern’s Department of Educational Inquiry and Curriculum Studies who also serves as an academic point person for HSI affairs. “In this context, the business sector has an opportunity to establish relationships with HSIs and provide input on gaps and opportunities for the Latinx workforce and entrepreneurs.” 

Within Northeastern’s College of Business and Management, the total number of Hispanic students earning bachelor’s degrees has grown by 117 percent since 2013. For the university as a whole, the number has grown by a still-impressive 28 percent.

“It all comes down to access, preparation and education,” said Margaret Johnsson, instructor of entrepreneurship and director of Northeastern’s Business Innovation and Growth (B.I.G.) Center, which helps start-ups and existing businesses fuel their entrepreneurial growth. “There are a lot of people with passion and great ideas trying to get their products to market or get their businesses off the ground. But 75 percent of new ventures fail in the first year. Northeastern’s B.I.G. Center helps entrepreneurs and established businesses hone their strategies, and then develop detailed plans in order to de-risk their growth efforts and investments. With increasing numbers of minority-owned businesses, there is also an increasing demand for growth-preparation education programs to help them get it right the first time.”  

Northeastern, which is recognized nationally for its ethnic diversity, is a reflection of that trend.

“With stabilized state funding for education and other scholarship opportunities available at Northeastern—as well as the partnerships we’re building through the B.I.G. Center—we are proud to increasingly be a destination for business-minded Latinx students,” College of Business and Management Dean Michael Bedell said.

While Sebastian didn’t choose Northeastern specifically because of its HSI status, he appreciates the emphasis professors place on diversity and inclusion and feels confident that the skills he’s learning will benefit him when he enters the dynamic and multicultural workforce.

“I feel prepared to go into any work environment because professors have taught me what to expect outside of the classroom,” Sebastian said. “They instill that students shouldn’t focus just on textbooks and exams to learn, but also interact with professors, really listen to lectures and take the skills they’re teaching to apply them to our careers.”

This story was originally published in Negocios Now.