Back when José Del Real Viramontes was completing his undergraduate degree at UCLA, he became involved in the McNair Scholars program, a federally funded TRIO program that puts college students—many being first-generation—on the path to graduate school. He soon became interested in Dr. Victor Sáenz’s research and considered following a similar path as a scholar of Latino males in education. Little did he know at the time, he would soon be working alongside Dr. Sáenz as a Ph.D. student in the College of Education and as a mentor for Project MALES (Mentoring to Achieve Latino Educational Success).
Now an assistant professor of higher education administration and policy at the University of California-Riverside, Del Real Viramontes is continuing his good work with Project MALES as a faculty affiliate. We caught up with him to learn more about his experiences at UT Austin and how he is working to improve educational outcomes for community college transfer students.
What sparked your interest in pursuing a Ph.D.?
The McNair Scholars program played a big part in my decision to choose this path. They really encourage people to pursue doctoral degrees and work in academia—and that’s what led me to think about becoming a professor. Project MALES solidified that decision because I could see that this would be the best way to have a direct impact on students. As a former community college transfer student, I feel that students are oftentimes seen as less academically capable than those who enroll in a university right after high school. My work is really connected to that because I feel like, as a faculty member, that’s the kind of impact I want to have.
What do you hope to achieve with your research on community college transfer students?
My goal is to have an impact on transfer students from community colleges, and to make sure they’re not negatively influenced. A lot of times, faculty have assumptions about students’ abilities based on their community college backgrounds. I want to make sure everybody knows these students have a lot to bring to the table and are facing different challenges, like access to financial aid, childcare and many other resources. My work highlights how these students develop their agency and use aspects of their cultural and social capitals to navigate and negotiate the community college to the four-year institution transfer pipeline. The goal is to inform policymakers, educators and faculty members about who these students are and what they bring to these institutions.
What made you decide to come to UT Austin?
I remember coming across Dr. Sáenz’s work while I was an undergrad at UCLA and thinking, ‘I want to pursue this area of research and focus on Latino male community college transfer students.’ Ultimately, I decided to come to UT Austin to pursue a master’s degree in cultural studies in education and work with Dr. Luis Urrieta alongside Victor Sáenz. I ended up staying to complete my Ph.D. as well. During my first year in Project MALES, I was so excited to be a part of this group and attend events like the Texas Male Student Leadership Summit—that’s where I saw the impact they were making on the state of Texas. I’m really proud to be a part of it.
Could you please talk about your work with the Project MALES Graduate Scholars Program?
The Graduate Scholars Program recruits a cohort of doctoral students who are doing research on boys and men of color and connects them with mentors who are doing similar research across the nation. We also provide professional development opportunities as they finish up their doctoral work and try to figure out the job market. I helped develop this program during my last year as a doctoral student, and now we’re recruiting our sixth cohort.
I’m still working with this program because I believe in what Project MALES is doing, and there are a lot of opportunities for us to provide support for students as they try to figure out the job market.
What was the greatest lesson you learned during your time in Project MALES?
My biggest takeaway was how to be a mentor. When I was a master’s student, I attended Dr. Sáenz’s retreats, where I learned how to be a good leader and how to create a community. This was big for me because I was far away from home and needed a community where I would always feel included. The greatest lessons Dr. Sáenz taught me were how to be a good human, how to lead by example, and how to create a family environment where everyone feels included in an academic space that is often isolating and overwhelming. I try my best to do this work, especially when I’m meeting with students for the first time. And it’s not just about developing relationships but also retaining them.
Interested in learning more about the McNair Scholars Program at UT Austin? Visit the Longhorn Center for Academic Equity website for more information. Go here to learn more about Project MALES’ many offerings, which include mentoring, K-12 educational enrichment programming, events and more.