Fidel Vargas, a leader in higher education
From an early age, the CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund has stood out for his interest in public service and the Latino community’s access to higher ed.
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Fidel Vargas started to make his way into higher education as soon as he received his admission letter from Harvard University. The first person to read it was his mother, who took it to the baseball field where Fidel was practicing for his championship as a senior student in Baldwin Park, California.
Her mom parked in a hurry on the grounds of the baseball field, kicking up sand and upsetting Fidel’s coach and everyone practicing there. Inside the van were his seven siblings and her, who was moving the letter of admission back and forth. From the batting green, Fidel couldn’t imagine what the envelope was about.
“She told me ‘open it, open it’... although the envelope was already open (he said with a chuckle). The letter said ‘Congratulations, you were accepted to Harvard’ and I ran to my coach”, Vargas said during an interview conducted by the SchermCo organization.
By 1986, Fidel started his first year as a student at Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, becoming the first generation in his family to get a college degree. By Christmas of that year, he had his first contact with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF), where he works now as CEO. At that time, he received a 1,000 dollar scholarship from HSF. With that money, Fidel was able to pay his way from Massachusetts to California to spend the traditional Christmas holidays with his family.
“I had only bought a ticket to Harvard, but I hadn’t bought a return ticket. And I didn’t know that I couldn’t stay for Christmas in the Harvard dorms... From that moment on, HSF has had a warm place in my heart”, Vargas admitted to SchermCo.
The letter came from HSF founder Ernest Robles, who passed away on September 5th.
Vargas graduated with honors from Harvard University, where he got a BA in Social Studies and an MBA from the Business School.
At the age of 23, Fidel was elected Mayor of Baldwin Park and became one of the youngest elected officials in history. In addition to being the city where he grew up, Baldwin Park was and continues to be a region with a high Latin population. During his term as Mayor, from 1992 to 1997, his mission focused on the inclusion of the Latino community in political posts, a situation that made many conservative citizens in the area uncomfortable.
His first and perhaps most notable changes in the Mayor’s office were replacing several commissioners, committee and board members to create a workforce that better reflected the local demographics of the time: 70 % Latin, 12 % Asian American and 5 % African American. Today, the DATA USA portal claims that 74 % of the population in Baldwin Park is Latino.
“My friends didn’t have the courage to tell me I was crazy to run for Mayor. A lot of people told me after I was elected: ‘I didn’t think you had a chance’”, Vargas confessed in an interview in 1994 with Los Angeles Times. That year, he was selected by the prestigious Time magazine as one of the 50 most promising leaders for the future. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey also made the list.
By 2006, Vargas became a founding partner of Centinela Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. He remained there until 2012, where he managed nearly 1 billion dollars in minority-owned funds.
Vargas has also served on the boards of Los Angeles Latino Theatre Company, the New America Alliance, Sponsors for Education Opportunities and Operation HOPE, Inc. He was part of President Bill Clinton’s Social Security Advisory Council, President George W. Bush’s Commission on Strengthening Social Security, and Presidents Bush and Barack Obama’s Commission on Presidential Scholarships. Currently, Vargas is part of the boards of the California Community Foundation, Latino Donor Collaborative and Los Angeles Theatre Center.
His Arrival at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund
In 2013, Fidel Vargas joined the HSF as Executive Director and CEO. Since he started, he has focused on creating the technology infrastructure the organization needed to extend the scope in terms of programs, information and resources.
HSF is a non-profit organization founded in 1975 with the mission to empower, educate and financially support Hispanic students on their path to higher education. It offers a variety of scholarships to as many exceptional students, scholarship recipients and alumni as possible.
Since its inception, the organization has awarded about 675 million dollars in scholarships to more than 65,000 scholarship recipients, including U.S. Treasurer Rosa Gumataotao Rios and American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero.
HSF currently has 530 advisory board members throughout the United States and 25,000 scholarship recipients at more than 1,200 universities.
HSF scholarship amounts range from 500 to 5,000 dollars, but the actual amount a student might earn will vary based on the financial need. Scholarship funds can be used for tuition, books and other academic expenses. It can also be used to pay for housing, food and transportation expenses.
HSF offers programs for organizations, businesses and institutions, as well as support services for parents of K-12 and college students. “We need to be a source not only for students, but also for parents to help them prepare, plan and pay for college”, Vargas told The Alumni Society.
The Vargas Family and their Love for Education
Vargas was born in the state of California, in the city of Lynwood. He spent his childhood and youth in Baldwin Park, a city located in the central San Gabriel Valley region of Los Angeles County. He is the son of immigrant parents and the oldest of eight children.
As he confesses in most of his interviews, he learned the value of education from his parents, who migrated from Mexico to the United States in the sixties.
His father was a carpenter and his mother was a homemaker, but in her spare time she enjoyed volunteering as a school organizer. Her two sisters work as elementary school teachers. Both parents were instrumental in inculcating in their children an interest in higher education.
“The love for education is huge in my family”, Vargas confessed to SchermCo. Fidel is also a certified high school teacher. He earned his certification during his senior year at Harvard.
Latino people and education
Vargas is a staunch advocate for access to education in the Latino and Hispanic community. However, he acknowledges that there is still a lack of information about the financial aid that exists for young Latino people to continue their college studies.
“For a while, I stopped telling people I wanted to go to Harvard because everyone looked at me like I was crazy or said: ‘You're not going to be able to do it’”, Vargas said about his experience as a Latin in higher education.
According to the HSF CEO, many of the challenges faced by first-generation students revolve around the “subtle unfamiliarity with things” and financing their studies. As an example, Vargas shared that most parents are unaware that there are universities in the United States, like Harvard and Stanford University, that cover tuition costs for any student whose family earns less than 150,000 dollars. If they earn less than 65,000 a year, some universities may cover all the student’s college expenses.
“If you're a young Latino in middle school and you think no Latin goes to college, you accept that that’s your destiny”, Vargas concluded for The Alumni Society.
HSF currently has scholarship opportunities open for students interested in pursuing higher education. For more information, visit www.hsf.net