When Andrea Ramírez Torres walked across the outdoor commencement stage in December of 2021 — wearing a traditional cap and gown in defiance of the 80-plus-degree temps hanging over FIU’s on-campus football stadium — few considered the barriers that could have kept her down, among them the hurricane devastation in her native Puerto Rico that forced her family to South Florida in the fall of 2017.
Heartbreak and financial struggles aside — FIU helped from a tuition fund established specifically for storm survivors — Torres applied to and excelled at the university. She joined the Honors College, earned a prestigious research award for work she initiated in a campus forensic lab and has since presented the latter to industry and academic experts at conferences.
With dual bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and natural and applied sciences in hand, Torres joined 15,000 others who graduated from FIU in 2021. She came out of a 58,000-strong student body that is 48% bilingual, nearly 50% eligible for need-based government Pell Grants and 86% minority. And she found her way at a 49-year-old university that these days competes head-on for federal research grants and top faculty at institutions decades, if not centuries, older.
FROM STEPCHILD TO POWERHOUSE
Much like Miami itself, FIU has never dwelled on what it might lack or how outsiders might look down at its very existence. Instead, the once upper-division-only institution, early on considered by legislators simply an extension of the local community college, has defied the odds and shocked the naysayers. “Challenge accepted” became something of a mantra as the university rapidly expanded.
Despite an uneasy initial relationship with state government in Tallahassee — which notably took years to give the go-ahead to establish a public university in Florida’s largest metropolitan area — FIU has never looked back. In the 1980s and ’90s, under one of the country’s first Hispanic presidents, the university fought tirelessly to do and offer more, always with the backing of students and alumni, who often convened en masse in the state capital to lobby leaders. Big victories arrived with the right to open law and medical schools. The legislature has been a champion of FIU ever since, with the body choosing in recent years to fund the construction of key academic buildings and provide recurring funds for the university's strategic initiatives.
And then, in 2015, as a result of the scholarship of an expanding and hard-working faculty, arrived the holy grail: designation as a Carnegie Research 1 (R1) university, or “very high research activity,” a measure of faculty investigation and innovation that puts the university in the company of just 3% of U.S. institutions, some of them founded hundreds of years ago.
The fourth largest university in the nation, FIU serves as a gateway to upward mobility on a scale no other institution in the country can match. FIU is No. 1 in awarding bachelor’s and master's degrees to Hispanic Americans and among the top ten in awarding engineering degrees to African Americans. Many are the first in their families to attend college.
Even as FIU attracts students from around the country, and the world, for its top-rated programs in marine biology, international business and hospitality management, among others, the majority come from the immediate area. Eager to earn an education that leads to rewarding positions in their chosen fields, graduates take jobs all over the world while many find work within the region itself, a hub for more than 1,100 multinational firms and a magnet for a growing number of startups.
“There are not many R1 universities that remain so keenly aware of their community and work so hard to support their students,” says Andréa Rodriguez, director of urban initiatives at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.
And none of it is by chance.
“We have created evidence-based approaches to help our students thrive, complete their degrees and launch successful careers,” explains Interim President Kenneth A. Jessell. “With great intentionality, we have taken steps to build their knowledge and skills as well as leadership qualities while catalyzing their entrepreneurial spirit.”
MAKING THE GRADE
University leadership collectively made the decision to continue to educate a broad spectrum of students — rather than pivot exclusively to increasing research capacity, a model adopted by other schools — and expend new efforts to see them to timely graduation.
Known for turning the impossible into the inevitable, FIU got to work. Beyond hiring additional advisers to serve throughout the university's nonstop, year-round schedule, significant innovations were implemented.
Some 20 prerequisite courses with overly high failure rates were redesigned to incorporate greater engagement and interaction with the goal of improving pass rates. A peer “learning assistant” model that hires high-achieving undergraduates to aid in certain science and math courses made possible individualized help on the spot.
A STEM “transformation institute” supported more than 12,500 undergraduate STEM majors and developed research-based best practices to prepare them for successful careers. A math-mastery lab opened as an alternative to traditional lecture learning, with peer mentors guiding the way. Programs to spur first-gen minority students to consider and prepare for graduate school were ramped up. So-called completion grants were distributed to reduce the burden on low-income learners to maintain long working hours as they neared graduation. “Active learning” classrooms, easily reconfigurable for small-group collaboration, began dotting the campus.
And the payoff has been huge: Today, students who qualify for federal scholarship funds — typically those whose family income falls below $20,000 — represent nearly half of enrollment but the largest percentage of those who graduate in four years.
Those results have turned heads not only in the state, which in 2021 named FIU No. 1 among the 12 institutions in Florida’s public university system according to performance-based metrics, but caught the eye of audacious philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. She and her husband last year made an unsolicited donation of $40 million to the university, a recognition of the combination that makes FIU a rarity in higher education: excellence and breadth in research, high diversity in the student body and enviable academic accomplishment.
“Higher education is a proven pathway to opportunity,” Scott wrote at the time, explaining that she chose to support “institutions successfully educating students who come from communities that have been chronically underserved.”
Interim President Jessell called the gift “rocket fuel” to launch young people to achieve their full potential, as the money will fund new and expanding programs. “At FIU, we are defying gravity,” he says. “We are investing in the success of our students and, ultimately, our community.”