Since its establishment in 1969, El Centro de la Raza, a resource center of The University of New Mexico (UNM), has been a primary support hub for Hispanic, Latino, and identifying students for more than 50 years. Student feedback, consideration, and cooperation has made it into the social, accessible, and engaging student resource center it is. El Centro’s goal? To offer students a place to find community, guidance, advocacy and representation.
The role of El Centro de la Raza director, Rosa Isela Cervantes, is to keep UNM aware of what’s happening regionally and nationally within the Hispanic and Latino community, many of whom are first-generation students, and come from various backgrounds of skin color, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Hispanic communities, especially at UNM, are each unique and diverse, said Cervantes.
“We cross all boundaries such as racial lines. As director, my role is as a campus advocate for Hispanic and Latino students, and to make sure that our processes and policies are in service to them, their specific needs, and the advancement of their academic goals.”
El Centro was established through the efforts of graduate students seeking support on campus. Felipe Gonzalez, who is now a retired UNM Sociology professor, helped found the organization as a student, further cementing the center’s phrase, “founded by students, for students”.
“We live by that motto every day, in everything we do; we always ask students what they think, how they’re feeling, and what directions El Centro should take moving forward,” said Cervantes.
Periodically, they conduct surveys to envision the future of El Centro from the perspective of Hispanic and Latino people, most recently identifying freshmen, sophomores and graduate students. All feedback is welcome, according to Cervantes. She also holds director office hours, called Cafecitos con Rosa, six times a semester: a designated time for students to share where they could use support within the center as well as build community.
One of the areas students have expressed appreciation for is El Centro’s free, confidential and supervised mental health support service led by UNM graduate student counselors, known as the UNM Mental Health Collaborative. It is available in Spanish, English and most recently, American Sign Language, thanks to collaboration with UNM’s Women’s Resource Center and the Accessibility Resource Center.
Folks that are interested should reach out to El Centro via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re working to figure out what students’ needs are in order to meet them where they are. Our goal is to expand the Collaborative so student counselors are placed at each UNM resource center,” said Cervantes.
The center’s support goes much further than mental health and administrative services like scholarships, stipends and financial support, and also helps students through transition, retention and graduation— no matter where they are in their own educational journey.
“We really want them to be as successful as can be in those transitions and to meet their goals without getting lost along the way,” Cervantes urged.
The center offers many programs for both undergraduate and graduate students. One such program is the El Puente Research Fellowship, wherein 24 undergraduate and graduate students explore academic research and graduate school with guidance from four graduate students through the lens of a student of color. Fellows work through the hidden curriculum of higher education, like building a curriculum vitae and conducting research. El Puente’s intent is to nurture academic passion and connect it with students’ personal passions, Cervantes said, since many students of color don’t often see themselves as scholars.
“Oftentimes students feel pressured to keep their community interests separate from what they do at the institution. You can do both! [The fellowship] is about connecting the dots and providing them with the tools to explore what they’re passionate about,” she said.
Another popular cohort program is the Transformar Mentorship Program. Its curriculum was designed by El Centro staff to encourage students to explore intercultural education, identity, danza, and ceremonies through community-based interdisciplinary thinking and approaches. It alleviates the common disconnect of those who don’t feel properly educated on their cultural history or backgrounds by linking their identity to their unique academic experiences and professional background.
The program includes a Fall and Spring semester of mentoring, learning and a possible two-week-long summer Transformar Study Abroad trip for those who factor it into their academic development plans.
Additionally, El Centro houses two federal grants from the U.S. Department of Education: the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and the High School Equivalency Program (HEP). Both programs serve students who themselves or their families are migrant or seasonal farmworkers.
“CAMP is an amazing program for incoming freshmen from mostly rural communities to not only stay engaged their first year on campus but to set them up for success throughout their academic journey,” Cervantes stated.
Cervantes’s office is positioned across from El Centro’s kitchenette, a gathering place to interact with staff, recharge, or engage in an organized activity or workshop. Others may stop by to grab a free cup of coffee. Cervantes can hear these gatherings from her office, and gets the added benefit of seeing the growth and development of those who make use of the center.
“At first, I’ll see a student walk in, kind of lost or unsure if they can hang out here, and then I hear staff welcome them, reassure them, and remind them that we’re here to help,” she said.
Cervantes said that almost inevitably, these timid students end up offering support to others at some point in the year. One student told Cervantes how grateful they were to always be met with a smile. The student told Cervantes they liked being able to take a coffee and study in the back or get involved or talk with the friendly people at the center.
From there, Cervantes said the student became very involved. As a token of appreciation, they brought in pozole for everyone. That building of community is most rewarding, she said.
El Centro openly invites any folks to check them out, get a tour, and meet one-on-one with staff, so the team can better get to know them and the support they seek.
“I've had students say, ‘I went and only heard people speaking in Spanish and I don’t speak Spanish but I really want to participate’ and conversely, ‘I've gone, but I wanted to practice my Spanish, and I only heard English.’ Disregard that,” Cervantes said. “Regardless of how much Spanish you speak or how you identify, the El Centro staff are here to serve you, the student. We have an amazing team that is passionate about working with students. Many of my team are alums of El Centro and truly understand the challenges that our diverse student body faces and they want to ensure that we can not only meet those challenges but also thrive in doing so.”
Cervantes welcomes students to come explore the possibilities of the center.
Stop by El Centro, at 1148 Mesa Vista Hall for more information, or follow the El Centro Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and Facebook. Keep up to date on the El Centro newsletter by subscribing to the El Centro LISTSERV. For more extensive details on what El Centro offers, visit the El Centro website.