United to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

By Giovanna Genard, Vice President of External Affairs and Marketing Leader

NORFOLK, VA – Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place each year from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15., is a time dedicated to celebrating the histories, cultures, achievements and contributions of Hispanic Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The U.S. began observing Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, then President Ronald Reagan expanded the tradition to a month-long celebration in 1988 due to the advocacy of U.S. Representative Esteban E. Torres. Hispanic Heritage Month begins on Sept. 15 because that date coincides with the anniversary of independence for many Latin American countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

I always enjoy this time to celebrate my Puerto Rican heritage and traditions. One of my favorites, which I have passed on to my sons, is celebrating “Día de los Reyes” (Three Kings Day) on Jan. 6. On the eve of Reyes, children leave a box with grass next to their beds as a treat for the camels to eat while the Three Kings leave presents for the children. Families spend this holiday together, commemorating Epiphany and sharing food, music and gifts.

I moved to the U.S. mainland to attend Seton Hill University, and I never left. Many of my seven sisters have moved to the U.S. as well, and we remain close. Some of my family still lives in Puerto Rico, and I visit often.

One thing I encountered time and again is the lack of access to pre-college STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and math) programs in Puerto Rico. In the U.S., where there are more STEM programs overall, studies show that, statistically, there is an underrepresentation of Latinos, women and other minorities in these fields.

Three years ago, a group of colleagues and I set out to solve this challenge and diversify STEM fields by co-founding the Remote Experience for Young Engineers and Scientists (REYES) global virtual STEM program. The REYES program increases STEM literacy to help inspire and train the next generation of scientists. Fun fact: the acronym forms the Spanish word “kings.” REYES began as a solution to replace an in-person summer STEM experience for high-achieving Latinos I founded in 2019, but when the pandemic hit, I realized we could potentially reach thousands with our online programming, irrespective of their location. 

Through the REYES program, we not only provide free courses—such as Python coding classes to teach skills essential to future programmers and cyber security experts who could join our financial services industry—but we also introduce future STEM specialists to inspirational speakers from underrepresented backgrounds. Astronauts Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman to travel to space and first Hispanic to lead Johnson Space Center, and José Hernández, a former migrant farmer whose application to NASA was rejected 12 times before he was finally accepted into the astronaut program, spoke to REYES participants about the power of education, hard work and perseverance.

To date, more than 11,000 students from 135 countries are registered, and we are privileged to have elite research institutions ranging from ODU to MIT, to Universidad de Puerto Rico and Universidad Autónoma de México, to NASA and Jefferson Lab and Berkeley Lab contributing to our programming and our new research mentoring program.

This global approach is one of inclusion, which aligns with this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month theme, “Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation.” There is enormous power in inclusivity. When I participated as a panelist in the YWCA’s “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope,” last year, I was asked to reflect on how the Latino community could begin to work towards the disproportionate effects of the pandemic. I spoke about the importance of mobilizing as a community to build a vital and irreplaceable role in our local and national economies. I aim in my professional and personal life to be a leader in that effort. 

As I discovered with the REYES program, this may mean stepping outside my comfort zone and beyond my area of expertise. But everyone should be empowered to make an impact on and build opportunities for those around them. It can be as easy as mentoring students in your field; engaging with local civic groups, places of worship, employee resource groups; or volunteering with nonprofit organizations that provide vital support to underserved and underrepresented populations.

Here at PRA Group, I have found a like-minded community that wholeheartedly embraces this philosophy as it invests in communities where it operates around the world—not only philanthropically, but also by encouraging and providing paid leave for employees to participate in volunteer opportunities, resulting in thousands of service hours contributed to organizations across the globe.

There is so much opportunity here to celebrate and support the Latino community. Let us start by using this month to build an even greater sense of inclusion and belonging and to inspire, positively influence and enrich the communities in which we live and work.