CSUN launches a Global Hispanic Serving Institution Equity Innovation Hub, to increase student success and equip historically underserved students with skills for high-demand careers in STEM.

by Olivia Herstein
Illustrations by Edel Rodriguez

Feature 1-Building on a Dream-main illustrationWHEN California State University, Northridge begins construction on its new Global Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Equity Innovation Hub next year, university leaders hope to break ground not just literally, but metaphorically—and academically.

There are two distinct but integrated components of the HSI Equity Innovation Hub: the infrastructure and programming. This ambitious project, housed in a state-of-the-art learning environment, aims to provide opportunities for all CSUN students and inspire Latinx and other underrepresented students to pursue degree pathways in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields—and close the historic equity gaps that have persisted in those fields and careers. University leaders also want to foster regional pathways to baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields, as well as raise CSUN’s visibility as a regional force for science and engineering education.

“It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this project in advancing our collective commitment to eliminating equity gaps and facilitating a brighter and more equitable future for us all,” CSUN President Erika D. Beck said. “By embracing thought partners across the CSU and around the nation, the Global HSI Equity Innovation Hub will advance a data-practice-leadership framework to become a place that engages the richness of diversity of our communities, inspiring future and existing students, families, faculty, staff and leaders to reimagine the future of STEM industries and beyond.

“Creating authentic and systemic change on our campus and well beyond our doors will require the partnership of every member of our academic community—students, faculty, staff, administrative leaders, alumni, donors and friends,” Beck said. “This is the first of many opportunities for our campus to lead with intentionality as we seek to eliminate equity gaps and elevate opportunities for all students.”

Scheduled to open in fall 2024, the nearly 32,000-square-foot HSI Equity Innovation Hub will include state-of-the- art research labs—including a design and digital capture lab, and a fabrication lab—plus a maker space for the campus and wider community. The center also will include what university leaders are calling a “next-generation student success center,” to provide peer-led student support services beyond the classroom and enable students’ progression to graduation and transition to high-demand careers in STEM and in the creative and tech economies.

The student success center may include a range of activities such as peer mentoring and tutoring, career advising and exploration, opportunities for internships and networking, and support for workforce transition, according to Houssam Toutanji, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science. It will feature an open concept, with flexible furniture and spaces for group and individual study, Toutanji said.

Historic Gift Expands Hub’s Scope

The realization of the Global HSI Equity Innovation Hub is the result of a public-private partnership for infrastructure support and equity-centered programming. The initial planning that allowed the project to be shovel-ready came through a gift from design software giant Autodesk. This gift, led by Autodesk President and CEO Andrew Anagnost ’87 (Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science minor), invested in planning for a “center of possibilities” with the College of Engineering and Computer Science.

In support of this work, the state of California provided capital infrastructure funding through the 2021-22 budget allocation process, to expand the scope of the project to include space for equity-centered programming, as well as space for collaboration with regional education partners—with the specific aim of facilitating new educational pathways that inspire Latinx and other historically underrepresented students to pursue degrees and successfully transition to career pathways in STEM fields. An additional $1 million in federal funding for programming support was shepherded by U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla.

In late August, Apple announced its $25 million donation to CSUN—the second-largest gift from a single donor in university history—as part of the company’s Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. The landmark gift is significantly expanding the programmatic scope and national work of the HSI Equity Innovation Hub, which will partner with HSIs across the CSU and around the country to ensure that historically underserved students have the opportunity to explore careers in creation and innovation. In addition to its financial support, Apple also will provide technology, design support and thought partnership as the HSI Equity Innovation Hub expands.

“Our country’s future social and economic well-being will depend on the success of students who have historically been excluded from higher education earning a college degree. Apple has made these bold partnerships with minority-serving institutions because they open the doors to educational opportunity for racially and ethnically diverse communities,” said Amanda Quintero, special assistant to the president for inclusive excellence at CSUN. “Through the work of the Hub, we will activate the potential of the national network of HSIs, which is 569 strong, to reach across the CSU and nation to prepare the talent we will need to build an inclusive workforce of the future.”

Feature 1-Building on a Dream-secondary illustrationIn building the HSI Equity Innovation Hub and designing its programming, Quintero said, CSUN is looking beyond the physical access to the building to offer immersive and virtual programming—in hopes of reaching families and communities, especially schoolchildren, who may not have the resources to take a field trip to CSUN’s Global HSI Equity Innovation Hub.

“It’s a bold vision and a creative way to build pathways to some of those fields where we know we need to inspire more diverse talent to support our future as a country,” Quintero said. “We are thinking creatively and intentionally about how we build a space where many communities fit—and who gets the opportunity to experience that space. Creating a parallel virtual environment challenges us to think beyond the physical space about how to leverage technology to facilitate equity.”

With its support for this initiative, Apple is committed to an interdisciplinary approach that bridges disciplines to engage all students in creative and disruptive thinking, leveraging technology to solve real-world problems in service to their communities, Quintero added.

“We are focused on advancing enduring change, and our newest grant commitments will further that effort by supporting problem solvers and solution seekers in communities of color nationwide,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives. “Education, economic opportunity and environmental justice are fundamental pillars to ensuring racial equity, and everyone has a role to play in this critical mission.”

Opening Doors to STEM Early

University leaders envision the Global HSI Equity Innovation Hub as a door for students as young as preschool and their families—with particular focus on mentoring middle school and high school students—throughout the region. By making those connections and cultivating an interest in STEM early, educators hope to narrow and eventually eliminate racial equity gaps in college graduation rates for historically underrepresented and underserved students.

“This initiative is going to serve our institution as a whole and our mission—to serve Latinx and other students from historically underserved communities,” Toutanji said. “It’s going to be transformative for CSUN as a whole. And it will serve as a model for other institutions, an example for other CSUs.

“I think this also will put us on the map for our engineering programs. The intention is to bring [middle and high school] students from the community to the hub, to show them what engineers and STEM students do,” he continued. “The HSI Equity Innovation Hub will enable our CSUN students to use state-of-the-art equipment that will put them in a much better position when they graduate. When you have all of these technologies and the students have access to them, our curricular and co-curricular activities will be transformed. As a dean, this is a dream come true. You always dream of having these kinds of resources.”

The initiative’s aim is to fuel CSUN’s ability to connect with the national network of HSIs and support similar programming at other CSU campuses, Quintero said. On a national scale, these investments also will target support for institutional transformation, working with leaders across HSIs to shift the conversation away from what students must do to be successful to what institutions must do to intentionally serve Latinx and other historically underrepresented students, to increase educational equity and representation in STEM degree pathways.

CSUN is among the nation’s leaders in awarding degrees to Latinx students, and more than 21,000 of the campus’ approximately 39,000 students enrolled in fall 2021 identified as Latinx. HSIs are defined under the Higher Education Act as colleges or universities where at least 25 percent of the undergraduate, full-time enrollment is Latinx; and at least half of the institution’s degree-seeking students must be low-income. Twenty-one of the CSU’s 23 campuses meet these criteria, allowing them to compete for federal funding to build institutional capacity that expands and enhances educational opportunities for their students, in particular Latinx and other students from historically underserved groups.

CSU campuses awarded more than 26,000 undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields in 2020-21, according to the Chancellor’s Office.

“The CSU, the nation’s largest four-year higher education system, has long been a leader in serving Latinx students,” according to the Chancellor’s Office. “The CSU takes great pride in the work we have undertaken to provide pathways to STEM education that result in the careers that power the world’s fifth-largest economy. Through bold vision from our state’s leaders in Governor Gavin Newsom, Senator Padilla, Congressman Tony Cárdenas and state Assemblywoman Luz Rivas, this is an exciting opportunity to collaborate with an outstanding partner in Apple—and to leverage their cutting-edge and creative technologies with the intellectual capacities of world-class faculty to combine that work to benefit thousands of talented students in California and beyond.”

Carmen Ramos Chandler and Michael Uhlenkamp contributed to this report.