|EDINBURG: Organizations and individuals near and far that have long wanted to check the pulse of the largely Mexican and Mexican American population in the Rio Grande Valley now they have the chance.
The Center for Survey Research at UT-Pan American will be conducting its annual Pulse of the Valley opinion poll in April and it wants to hear from residents and groups that have questions for the survey.
“Our Pulse of the Valley will be conducted over the telephone, over the Web, and out in the field in Cameron and Hidalgo counties. So, we have a call out right now. If anyone has a question they want us to ask on their behalf, we are willing to consider that,” said CSR Director Jessica Lavariega Montfori.
Lavariega Montfori explained why it is important to survey what Valley residents are thinking on the big issues, such as immigration, healthcare and education.
“The former state demographer for Texas, Steve Murdock, has been talking about how, because of the growth of the Valley, and because of the young age of its population, this area is the future of Texas. I would agree. The future of Texas is in the Valley’s hands, in so many ways. This is the emerging market that people want to break into, whether it is media or business or building new businesses across the state. We will produce the workers who will support the state of Texas as we move forward.”
CSR had a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week at UTPA. The organization has been expanded and modernized. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Lavariega Montfori said it is important to know the views of the Mexican American population in the United States, which is why the work of CRS is becoming more widely recognized.
“There have been significant advances in places like Pew Research with its Hispanic Trends Project. There is also Latino Decisions, out of the University of Washington,” Lavariega Montfori said. “However, I would still say there is a profound misunderstanding of Mexican American public opinion. One cannot just group all people who live on the border as Mexican American. We have lots of Mexican nationals; there is a lot of diversity within what the term ‘Mexican American’ means. I think we are better than we used to be and we are making progress on a national level but I still think the knowledge that we have here (at CSR) needs to inform what those other folks are doing.”
CSR is growing fast. It was only a year or so back that its student workers were out in the field conducting surveys with pencils and clipboards. Now the students have iPads.
“We have moved into the digital age. Thanks to the support of the university administration we were able to secure some grant funds to get some laptops and we have iPads. We will be using the iPads for Pulse of the Valley so we will be getting the information live,” Lavariega Montfori said.
The new digital equipment will not improve the quality of the data, Lavariega Montfori said. “As far as the quality is concerned, it will be the same. It will just be much easier to process the information we get. Instead of being able to turn out a report in a month or two months we will be able to turn it out in a week or so.”
Another advance made at CSR, Lavariega Montfori said, is the purchase of better software. “We now have institutional licenses for surveying software that just makes life so much easier for us. It allows us to do so much more with the data we collect. It allows us to download data live as it is happening and keep track of it in a much better way. The institution has made some investments that are really helping us do what we need to do here.”
Lavariega Montfori pointed out that since she became director of CSR in September two academic publications have come out using data from the center. “We have done work for faculty members out in California, and someone at Princeton. It is really amazing. The message is that people really want to know what is happening here. People who live beyond our borders here in the Valley want to know the thinking of border residents, particularly those cities with growing Hispanic populations. They want to know how we have been doing things all this time with a Hispanic majority. We in the Valley are the experts on how to do a lot of things. We have a lot to teach people.”
In addition to an expanded center and new digital equipment, CSR is beefing up its website. “Our website will be totally bilingual, in English and Spanish. In fact, all of our services are going to be completely bilingual. Out of the staff, almost 100 percent are bilingual,” Lavariega Montfori explained.
Since September, CSR’s staffing level has risen from one person to seven. The team includes interns, graduate students, and some UTPA alumni from different disciplines. Graduate student are allowed to work 20 hours a week at the center, with interns working 15 to 20 hours a week. The group is currently working on opinion poll projects for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and La Unión del Pueblo Entero.
“What we are really doing here is training our students in a really applied way so they can go out with confidence into the community. They can also take the skills they have learned here into their workplaces,” Lavariega Montfori explained.
A fact sheet produced by CSR explains what the organization is all about. “The Center delivers information and expertise to decision makers, scholars, community leaders and citizens as they seek to forge solutions to urban problems and deal with issues of public policy.
“The overall goal of the Center is to provide decision makers and scholars with the best possible information to establish solutions to the challenges they confront. Toward that goal, the Center can provide research and technical assistance to governmental nonprofit and for profit organizations.
“Additionally, the Center helps fulfil the University’s instructional mission by involving students in survey research and data analysis. Finally, the Center also engages in research and analyses for individuals, agencies, and companies.”
UTPA leaders are fully supportive of CSR.
UTPA President Robert Nelsen said: “The Center’s work with the community is in perfect alignment with the goals of the University of Texas-Pan American’s Strategic Plan – Bronc Country: The Engaged University 2012-2022. The Center will help us as we seek to transform the Valley and improve the living conditions of its residents.”
UTPA Provost Havidan Rodriguez said: “Researchers at the Center for Survey Research at the University of Texas-Pan American will engage in state-of-the-art research that will contribute to enhancing our understanding of the critical issues that impact the population of the Rio Grande Valley, the state of Texas and beyond. The Center will actively engage faculty and students (at the undergraduate and graduate level) in transformational research that will also make important contributions to the theoretical, methodological, and substantive social science research areas that will be the focus of the Center.”
UTPA Dean Walter Diaz said: “The Center is capable of designing surveys, from sampling through data analysis, for institutional, local, regional and even national scale projects. However, its methodological portfolio goes well beyond traditional survey research as it can also design and implement qualitative studies, such as focus group research, and a variety of experimental designs. Furthermore, the Center is fully capable of designing and implementing bilingual English-Spanish projects to better meet the needs of the Rio Grande Valley community that it serves.”
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Lavariega Montfori thanked community supporters and the UTPA administration.
“At the end of the day this center is about two things. It is about our students and giving them the best possible training to do the best possible work when they leave here. And, secondly, it is about community engagement. There is no better way to talk about what the community is thinking than doing really good social science research. So that it is not just, well, he said or she said, but a scientific analysis at a systematic level about what the needs are, what the desires are. I am really interested to see what the results are of the Pulse of the Valley for this year.”
Lavariega Montfori said the Pulse of the Valley report will likely be unveiled in May. Then, probably in the fall, CSR will stage a meeting with community stakeholders to go through the information in depth. “It is an exciting day. We are all very pleased things are coming together.”