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Latino Change Agents: University of Miami President Julio Frenk

Change Agents: University of Miami President Julio Frenk 3:53

This is part of NBC Latino's ongoing series on Latino college presidents around the country.

CORAL GABLES, Fla, -- "A hemispheric strategy" is the focus of the University of Miami's newly appointed - and first Hispanic president - Dr. Julio Frenk. In fact, one of the main reasons the world-renowned scholar was attracted to the job is because of Miami's geographic position, connecting the U.S., Latin America, and Canada and serving as a bridge between cultures.

The former Mexico health minister and Harvard University Dean is big on diversity and it's not surprising - he is the product of a mélange of cultures and religions. He was born in Mexico to a German-Jewish father who at 6 years of age escaped persecution in Nazi Germany along with his parents. His maternal grandfather migrated to Mexico from the Canary Islands in Spain in search of new economic opportunities.

RELATED: Change Agents: Miami Dade College's Eduardo Padron's Journey

"In spite of incredible adversity, my family found a welcoming place in Mexico, in a country that was much poorer [economically] than Germany … but much richer in terms of tolerance and acceptance," Frenk told NBC Latino during a recent interview at the University of Miami campus.

Frenk, who has an M.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, a Master's in Public Health and a joint Ph.D. in Medical Care Organization and sociology from the University of Michigan, has known nothing but success throughout his career. During his time as Dean of Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, he oversaw the expansion of the school's international reach. He changed its mission to focus on four global public health challenges and helped secure a historic $350 million endowment gift.

Before his appointment at Harvard, he served as Minister of Health under Mexican President Vicente Fox and reformed the country's public health system with universal healthcare known as Seguro Popular. In a country where 52 percent of the population lives in poverty, this impacted a vast amount of people. He also established expanded access to family planning and contraception for women.

Frenk was also the Executive President of Mexico's national health institute, a senior fellow for the global health program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and was a director at the World Health Organization in Geneva.

Frenk has received many accolades including the Clinton Global Citizen Award for changing the way practitioners and policy makers across the world think about health.

Now as the 6th president of the University of Miami, Frenk is focused on continuing the upward trajectory established by his predecessor, Donna E. Shalala.

"I am very committed to diversity and inclusion," said Frenk about his role as the University of Miami's new president. It's something he spoke at length about during the interview.

The school already has a reputation for inclusion - U.M. was rated number one in diversity in 2011 by the Princeton Review. The Hispanic Business 2010 Diversity Report named three U.M. graduate schools among the top ten in the U.S. for Hispanic students.

Frenk said it's important to ensure university students see other members of the community with different backgrounds. "We need more students and we need to do a better job there," he said, explaining it's the smart thing to do since diversity brings different ways of understanding and tackling problems.

One of his main priorities is tackling the high cost of college, which he sees as the biggest obstacle for so many students and their parents. "It's the idea that we should not place undue financial burden on families to have access to high quality education," he said.

But he also stressed the importance of improving the educational pathway that prepares young people to attend college, "those opportunities that start, almost before you're born. We need to improve those opportunities - so when they graduate from high school they're truly college ready," he said.

Frenk sees MIami's geographical location as a crossroads that brings an enormous richness of people, talent and resources. "The idea of making the University of Miami the hemispheric university, the university that really connects our whole hemisphere to the rest of the world is one that I find very, very stimulating," he said. Frenk's inauguration is scheduled for January 29, 2016.

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