Sarah Rodriguez remembers the day all too well when Project MALES was born as an idea scribbled down on a cocktail napkin. While working as a graduate research assistant in the College of Education, she was the first to help bring the lightning bulb moment to life when her faculty supervisor Victor Saenz asked her to transcribe notes from the napkin.
Ten years later, the program, co-founded by Victor Sáenz and Luis Ponjuán, flourished into a national model for studying and serving Latino boys and men in U.S. education systems. We caught up with the UT Austin alumna (Ph.D. Higher Education and Leadership ’15), to learn more about her early beginnings with Project MALES—back when it first set up a bare-bones shop in a small satellite building near Reagan High School—and how the experience shaped her career as an award-winning professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce.
On the spirit of familia:
Back when Project MALES began, I knew it was a good idea but had no idea that it would be so impactful. Since day one, I felt like a member of the family—a family that has flourished and grown so much. We share ideas, share meals, share challenges and opportunities. These are the people who, professionally, I have grown up with. To give you an example of the sense of familia we have, they just sent me a Project MALES onesie for my infant daughter, which she wore with pride at the Project MALES 10-year anniversary celebration.
On serving her community:
People often question why I work on a men’s projects. What they need to understand is that this is an issue for the whole community, not just one group. We—the women of Project MALES—are working on challenges that need to be addressed. It’s important to champion this research because we must. With the growing Latino population, particularly in Texas, we need to understand what’s happening with this demographic in education systems. We have to ask ourselves, what does it mean to serve your community? As researchers, sometimes we forget that’s our purpose. A big part of my mission as a researcher is making sure leaders know the research and can make informed decisions.
On the career launchpad:
I gained so much work experience during my time as a graduate research coordinator for Project MALES. I coordinated the research projects across all stages—from running focus groups to analysis to writing and presenting at consortium conferences. There were a lot of daily challenges coordinating research projects with graduate students and staff, but I’m proud to say that every paper I coordinated during my time there has now been published. Now, many former graduate students are faculty members at universities across the country, making the network that much stronger. We like to call it the “Project MALES launchpad.”
On embracing all identities:
When I was there, it was so important to have people of different identities working together as allies on the project—and that’s why Project MALES was, and is, so strong. The diverse perspectives people are bringing to the project influence the research it produces and the services they offer. The push for explorations into masculinities, transfer contexts, sexual orientation, and a host of other topics came from affiliates and gave it a new essence. This wouldn’t have happened if Project MALES didn’t collaborate with a diverse group of individuals and embrace all of these identities.
On the power of community colleges:
In terms of studying Latino men, my research currently focuses on the academic and social experiences of Latino men in community colleges. My work in this area tends to focus on understanding how their experiences as both men and individuals from racially and ethnically marginalized groups influence their college experiences.
I study Latino men, and other groups within this context, because I believe community colleges are the MVPs of higher education; they are receptive, agile and able to meet the needs of the communities they serve.
On the future of Project MALES:
Where I would like to see Project MALES going is where it’s already heading. It already is a nation-wide model, and it’s on course to being the premiere program for studying and serving Latino men in the United States. It all started out by two faculty members as a labor of love. They, along with a stellar group of graduate assistants and staff, put in so many long hours of work to make it what it is today. Year after year, they went above and beyond. I just hope they allow all of us to be a part of the magic moving forward!
On staying connected:
In the spirit of familia, Victor gave us, as graduate students, a lot of autonomy. We were still working toward a common vision, but we were also given a lot of room to grow. He really empowered us all to take issues to heart, be thorough with research, work with practitioners and present our research. It’s exciting to stay connected with the team and my Ph.D. alma mater throughout all of these years.