The University of Texas at El Paso is one of just 17 higher education institutions nationwide to join a new $6.5 million NBCUniversal News Group initiative to diversify newsrooms.

UTEP’s Department of Communication will receive $500,000 over two years to expand journalism training programs and fund student internships at national media outlets. It’s the largest grant in the department’s history, department Chair Richard Pineda said.

Richard Pineda

UTEP is one of three Texas schools selected for NBCU Academy, along with Dallas College and the University of North Texas. The 17 universities and community colleges predominantly serve students of color, who are underrepresented in newsrooms.

“Through NBCU Academy, we have the opportunity to widen our extraordinary legacy by building on-ramps for a talented generation of journalists and storytellers who — for so long — may have been overlooked,” NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde said in a statement.

In July, Conde announced a “Fifty Percent Challenge Initiative” to push for 50% of their employees to be people of color and 50% to be women. At that time, journalists of color made up 27% of employees across NBC News, CNBC and MSNBC.

UTEP’s students represent the future of journalism, Pineda said. “Not only are our students being trained to be multimedia journalists and understand the capacities they have to have as journalists, but we also represent a very important and significant bilingual, bicultural demographic,” he said.

NBCUniversal was impressed that the majority of UTEP students are from the El Paso area and after graduating, many go on to work for the region’s English and Spanish language media outlets, Pineda said.

The Department of Communication will use almost half of the NBCU Academy grant to fund $10,000 fellowships for 20 multimedia and digital media production students to pursue summer internships outside of El Paso.

The remainder will go toward developing new classes, purchasing equipment and bringing in working journalists to speak to students and give workshops. NBCUniversal also committed to having its journalists visit UTEP to give guest lectures that will be open to the community.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that you can teach students as much as you want from your own experience, but until you start bringing in people that do what they want to do, you’re going to miss an important and crucial element — and I think NBC saw that kind of possibility,” Pineda said.

He’s already looking at ways of leveraging the NBCU Academy grant to entice other organizations and donors to invest in UTEP’s journalism program.

“What we can do here in El Paso at UTEP with the kind of student population that we have is going to have a far ranging effect and impact,” he said.

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.