U.S Secretary of Education gives keynote speech for Hispanic Heritage Month


Gauri Raje, News Editor

On Thursday, Oct. 13, UTSA hosted the U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as one of its keynote speakers for Hispanic Heritage Month. Cardona was joined in the virtual webinar by President Taylor Eighmy and Teresa Niño, vice president for university relations.

Cardona, who was born in Connecticut to Puerto Rican parents, began by talking about his experience growing up in America.

“We had love, family and of course pride in my Puerto Rican roots,” Cardona said. “And, it’s that biculturalism that I embraced as a young boy [and] without question, that turned into my superpowers. I always call them my superpowers — being bilingual and being bicultural. Those became my superpowers that allowed me to become secretary of education.”

As a first-generation college student, Cardona struggled with the transition into higher education but persevered because he was reminded of the sacrifices that his parents and grandparents had made. Using his experience as an example, Cardona highlighted that his story is not special.

“To the first-gen students there — this is different. It’s a different path, but learn [and] embrace that. Embrace the fact that you’re walking into a room and you don’t know as much as the people in the room. But you’re going to grow and you’re going to look at that as a challenge. If I quit eight weeks in, I wouldn’t be advising the president of the United States,” Cardona said.

Today, Cardona is part of one of the most diverse presidential cabinets in the history of the country, which includes several women and people of color. Cardona acknowledged this fact, adding that the administration is “delivering for the Latino community.”

In the field of education, Cardona highlighted some of the administration’s key policies that have benefited underserved communities and first-gen students. 

At the top of this list was the $130 billion that was allocated to K-12 education institutions as a part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. Cardona explained the importance of the money in the context of providing aid to communities that were hit harder during the pandemic due to a lack of resources. 

“We provided $130 billion for K-12 education institutions because we know [the Latino community was] impacted significantly by the pandemic,” Cardona said. “Everybody was hit — [the Latino community] and Black and Brown folks were hit a lot … folks that were in communities that don’t have a lot of resources were hit harder. So we made sure the money went to address achievement disparities.”

Cardona further explained that, since he assumed his position, a more significant percentage of American schools have opened full-time, a direct benefit of the aforementioned $130 billion.

“When I came in, only 47% of our schools were open full-time across the country … within nine months we had over 97% percent of our schools open full-time, thanks to the American Rescue plan dollars,” Cardona said.

Another important policy Cardona discussed was Biden’s recent debt relief plan, which is aimed at taking off the burden of student loans that many Americans continue to pay back. The relief plan will forgive $10,000 in student loans for all eligible individuals and $20,000 for Pell grant recipients. According to Cardona, almost every one in two Latino borrowers will be positively impacted by this plan, and this could also have an impact on not just first-generation students but also their children’s access to higher education.

“For [the Latino community], nearly one in two … with student debt are gonna see their balances drop to zero when they apply,” Cardona said.

Despite that, Cardona acknowledged that debt relief is not the end-all and be-all when it comes to making college affordable in the U.S.

“Debt relief is not gonna fix the problem of having college be out of reach for so many people … it’s gonna help those who have loans, but we have to fix a broken system,” Cardona said. “But what we’re trying to do now is work with our colleges, work with our universities. Let’s work together to figure out how we could provide a better return on investment [and] ensure that college costs are reigned in so that students can afford them.”

Cardona also talked about the impact of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), part of which is aimed at providing support to universities in keeping various programs open, which could potentially impact access to mental health. 

Other points highlighted by Cardona included the importance of state funding for higher education as well as teacher retention, including better working conditions and salaries, given the important role that K-12 plays in a student’s educational journey. Cardona also talked about the importance of teacher preparation and how such programs would benefit from collaboration between higher education and K-12 institutions. 

All of the points highlighted by Cardona tied back to the common theme of student success and helping students from underserved communities. 

Cardona circled back to the impact UTSA has as a Hispanic Serving Institution as well as in promoting faculty diversity. He explained that the university ranking system that currently exists fails to recognize the role that universities like UTSA play in helping students grow and provide upward mobility. 

“I want to start lifting up colleges … that see the potential in … students when the students don’t even see it sometimes,” Cardona said. “I want to embrace universities and leaders that are seeking students that maybe the K-12 system didn’t serve well or maybe those students [that] have a level of resilience because they have to be helping provide food for their family or struggling with a lot of things that first generation families like my parents did. To me, I want to embrace those universities that are taking students and helping them grow and provide upward mobility. That’s what I want to lift up as secretary of education.”

“It’s not either-or,” Cardona said. “[UTSA is] an R1 institution, yet you’re a model for what colleges can do to lift up students from Hispanic backgrounds or maybe students that don’t fit a traditional college entrance process … you can do both, and that’s why I’m here with you today.”