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3 Valley educators win USDA fellowships targeted at Hispanics

WASHINGTON -- Rudy Ortiz will broaden his horizons with the help of Uncle Sam.

The University of California at Merced physiologist is one of three San Joaquin Valley educators to win new Agriculture Department fellowships targeting colleges with sizable Hispanic populations. The money is modest, but the prospects are sweet.

"This fellowship provides me with a great opportunity to meet with Agriculture Department administrators and directors of specific funding programs in which I have a keen interest," Ortiz said, adding that it "also provides a great networking opportunity."

Ortiz, Fresno City College nutrition instructor Ricarda Cerda and Merced College counselor Enrique Renteria are among the 20 new winners of the federal Kika de la Garza Fellowship.

The de la Garza Fellows, termed "highly accomplished" by the Agriculture Department, spend at least a week in Washington convening with federal officials. Some will spend longer in the capital, learning about grants and programs through other agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Others will spend time with Agriculture Department research scientists.

"By gaining better insight and better understanding of the funding processes at the Agriculture Department, I potentially improve my chances of obtaining funding to promote our research and training program ideas," Ortiz said via e-mail.

At UC Merced, Ortiz teaches nutrition and human physiology. His lab researches hypertension and kidney function in seals and manatees.

Named for the former chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, the de la Garza fellowships assist faculty members at designated Hispanic-Serving Institutions. These are colleges and universities with full-time Hispanic student enrollment of 25 percent or more.

There are several hundred such institutions of higher learning nationwide. As of 2007, 26 percent of UC Merced students were Hispanic. At Merced College and Fresno City College, more than 40 percent of students are Hispanic.

Together, Congress and the Agriculture Department have carved out multiple programs aiding the Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Between 1997 and 2007, for instance, Fresno State received $1.5 million and Stanislaus State received $343,000 in grants from another Agriculture Department program serving the same population.

The programs are sufficiently popular that Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, weighed in early with the Education Department to help promote Hispanic-Serving Institution status for UC Merced. The programs are also often designed so the grant-winner turns around to help others.

"There will be greater ability for these students to gain rapid upward mobility within federal service," Cerda said of the federal assistance. "Fresno City College (can) build relationships with (federal) agencies in order to help our students with future grants and internship opportunities and eventually employment."

Ortiz will be spending part of his time with Agricultural Research Service scientists. Cerda, a registered dietitian, and Renteria, the Merced College counselor, will be on a slightly different fellowship track. They will concentrate on meetings with other federal agencies like the departments of education and housing and urban development.

"Students look for guidance, and I would like to promote and funnel students to work in government agencies," Renteria said. "We have a large population of baby boomers who are going to be retiring in the next five years, and government agencies need qualified and skilled people to fill those positions."

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