'Best is yet to come': Latino college internship program celebrates 30 years

Jahmeel Khan-Poulson

A program that began with 24 young people three decades ago is drawing praise for providing thousands of Latino college students with paid public and private internship opportunities while helping diversify the workforce.

The HACU National Internship Program, created by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, has grown into a year-round internship program for Latinos and underrepresented students attending Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The program places more than 500 interns every year in federal agencies and has over 14,000 alumni in federal, state and local governments, as well as across private industries.

Ashley Guayara, 25, recently accepted a full-time position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service Office of Internal Controls, Audits and Investigations She credited the opportunity to her internship at the USDA.

“It’s definitely been an experience that without HNIP I don’t think would have been possible. I wouldn’t have even imagined myself in this position so soon after graduating,” said Guayara, who obtained a degree in public administration from Rutgers University in 2020.


Juliana Lopez, 22, a senior at Kean University, was selected through HNIP to intern with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Division of Economic and Risk Analysis — an opportunity she thought wasn’t possible for Latinas like her, she said.

“I would never imagine to apply — me being Hispanic and my second language is English. You don’t imagine working at such important positions and places,” said Lopez, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Bogotá, Colombia, for 15 years.

“I feel like, Latinos, we don’t know that those opportunities are open for us. That’s something that happened to me,” Lopez said. “I didn’t know about HACU. I didn’t know that I could work for a federal agency.”

Both Lopez and Guayara said HNIP helped shape their internship experience by holding professional development sessions and résumé workshops and providing interview and financial wellness tips, among other career advice.

Students interested in participating in HNIP must be at least of sophomore-level standing in college to qualify.

The program offers students, including many who come from low-income backgrounds and are potentially the first in their families to attend college, an opportunity to intern away from home and take on some degree of independence.

Since the majority of the available internships are located in the Washington, D.C., area, HACU and HNIP cover expenses, including the withholding of taxes from an intern’s original state, payroll, general housing and transportation.

All of the internship opportunities are paid, and there's no application fee. College students can apply through HNIP’s online platform, and the application is available to anyone regardless of major or background.

Available positions include internships at the Library of Congress, NASA and the USDA, among others.

'We have to close those gaps'

“The aim is to make sure that our community is an integral part of all the different opportunities that exist in this country, whether it’s government or the private sector — that we all are given a chance to demonstrate our talents and to lead in professional positions,” HACU President and CEO Antonio R. Flores told NBC News.

Despite the program’s success, Flores said further work remains be done to increase diversity, as Hispanic employment in the federal government was 9.1 percent as of the 2018 fiscal year.

“We believe that the best is yet to come,” Flores said, “because regrettably, we still are underrepresented. We have to close those gaps and help our young people enter those professions and those occupations.”

HACU represents over 500 colleges and universities, mostly in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and has worked to secure more federal funding for the institutions.

U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. and Alex Padilla, D-Calif.; co-founders and co-chairs of the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Senate Caucus, unveiled a bipartisan resolution alongside Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, "recognizing HACU’s Hispanic National Internship Program for 30 years of excellence and service to Latino and Hispanic students committed to pursuing a career in public service,” Menendez said in a statement provided to NBC News.

The resolution also encourages "the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to continue to support and inspire future Hispanic and underrepresented leaders."

Padilla said: “We will continue working alongside HACU to ensure that HSIs have the resources they need to support our students and strengthen the communities that are uplifted by their success.”

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