Alejandra Ceja (Courtesy Department of Education)

Latina Leaders: Alejandra Ceja, on a mission to increase Latino education

Last week was a big week for education, and Alejandra Ceja, the recently appointed executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics had a lot to do with it.

She joined Cecilia Muñoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to the president for Education Policy, as well a community leaders, parents and educators at the National Hispanic Summit on Early Learning – an initiative President Obama is launching with the goal of providing better access to education from kindergarten through college.

Hispanics are the largest minority group in our nation’s schools – nearly 1 in 4 Pre-K through 12 students, and President Obama announced he would like America to once again lead the world in education and lead to a more diverse labor force.

“We are embarking on a tour of Texas starting September 4 through 6,” says Ceja explaining the Our Shared Future Tour which will start in Corpus Christi and head to the Rio Grande Valley. “The areas we are going to be targeting have a combined population of 3 million, of which 2.2. million are Hispanic.”

“We are going to have various events touching on an individual agenda — from early learning to focusing on college access and completion,” says Ceja. “Increasing the awareness for our community will help lessen the fear that a college education is out of their reach. Once that becomes second nature, the more likely our community will enter our workforce prepared.”

Part of the education agenda she is playing a part in advancing is parental engagement, as well as giving guidance on financial aid, and promoting classes in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“My parents immigrated from Mexico, and they couldn’t explain to me financial aid or deadlines,” says Ceja who grew up in Huntington Park, Calif. and went to a high school that was 94 percent Latino. She then ended up studying political science and leadership at Mount Saint Mary’s in Los Angeles, a private all-women’s college. “It was a culture shock,” she says. She then came to Washington, DC shortly after graduating, with the Congressional Hispanic Fellowship.

After the fellowship, she got a master’s in public administration and took a full-time job in the Office of Management and Budget — a non-partisan position under the Clinton and Bush administrations — working on presidential budget proposals.

“I really have had a great experience in Washington, and I can attribute it to education,” says Ceja.

She says that as an adult, she can now see that just being aware of different colleges that exist can open many doors for Latino students.

“I didn’t hear about Harvard until I was a senior in high school, and the consensus was it was too hard,” says Ceja. “My little niece is 8, and she tells me she’s going to Harvard. Can you imagine the power if we get more students in that mindset and the opportunities that will exist for them? Those messages are so key to advance our levels in education.”

Ceja, 38, has only been in her current role for four months. Her role, she says, is to continue listening to the community, take the feedback and take action. For example, there has been progress in terms of Latino students enrolling in college but not always finishing.

“If students don’t have services in place to support them, that’s where we’re losing the Latino kids,” says Ceja. She says she’s researching the things that are helping them graduate on time. “We are making sure we provide those resources, and increasing the counselors and support services available.”

Ceja says she wants to change the narrative while she’s heading the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, a program which was started by President George Bush, Sr.

“Let’s focus on what’s working,” says Ceja, who keeps a picture of her parents on her desk in order to remember their sacrifice in order for her to get an education. “I want to be able to tell you, ‘Here’s what we’ve done in the past 25 years. Here’s where we need to invest and continue to make progress in’…I could not have imagined having this position when I was growing up, but I am one lucky lady…I love my job.”

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