The unique, impactful work being done at El Centro de la Raza’s El Puente Research Fellowship is getting additional, well-deserved attention.
Program Director Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera and four Graduate Fellows just highlighted El Puente’s years of results in a peer-reviewed journal by the American Sociological Association.
“We set it as a goal for ourselves to publish about our pedagogical practices in the program because we felt we were doing something unique that should be written about,” El Puente Program Director Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera said.
Florence Emilia Castillo, Gustavo García, Ana Paula Milán Hinostroza and Natalia M. Toscano all joined Mendiaz-Rivera in this publication, to publish the pedagogical approach El Puente employs.
“Alejandro has taken the helm of El Puente and taken it to the next level. I think the publication brings all of the elements of the program together and really showcases the work that's been done by our predecessors to bring the program to where we're at now,” El Centro Director Rosa Isela Cervantes said. “We really try to make sure every program in El Centro allows everybody to walk away with a learning opportunity. Here you have a program where students not only learn from the instructional team but truly engage and learn from each other.”
El Puente began in the early 2000’s as a service learning program, but got a special revamp in 2014. It’s clear in the new publication, as it became clear to the El Centro team that there was a need to look at research beyond the traditional academic setting.
“We had started hearing from students that they needed more of that undergrad research programming opportunity. So, when the program morphed in 2014, it became a research-focused, intensive program,” Cervantes said. “The graduate students work directly with the undergraduate students and show that the way that we do things in our diverse culture is very much on par with academia. They don't have to feel like they need to split themselves between academia and their cultural and traditional background but rather be in research as a whole being. I think that's critical.”
El Puente has since helped 170 predominantly first-generation, low-income students of color explore research opportunities that may not normally be available to them. These fellows have come from over 50 different areas of study, and even more different walks of life.
“Revamping the program was a response to calls from our students wanting an opportunity to pursue research and to prepare for graduate school,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “We filled a programmatic gap that existed in terms of preparing students of color for continuing research opportunities and for graduate school preparation. El Puente provides the means to bridge students to these opportunities.”
Whether it be psychology, women’s studies or economics, selected fellows choose and investigate a topic that’s special to them, to ensure maximum engagement.
“There's so many different topics. What we do is provide them an opportunity to explore their various passions, to think about the things that are important to them. It's really about connecting their community, their passions, the work that they want to do,” Cervantes said. “That academic journey is really about being able to merge them and not feel like they have to do two separate things.”
“El Puente is a scholarly program and it's what we strive to do at El Centro; to provide stellar programs for students, by students, in ways that really help them connect with where they're at.” – El Centro Director Rosa Isela Cervantes
El Centro provides a plethora of materials, guidance and mentors assisting these fellows along the way, culminating with each fellow presenting their research proposal at the UNM Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference.
“Each undergraduate fellow has to come up with their own individual research proposal, and they're guided by Graduate Research Fellows, who serve as their mentors the whole year,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “We also help them identify a faculty mentor in their area to also support the discipline-specific parts of putting together their proposal and presentation.”
That’s the distinctive component of El Puente that Mendiaz-Rivera and his team highlighted nationwide: community through research and research through community.
“I always tell my students that one of the implicit goals of the program is to help them build a network of success; whatever success is to them. There definitely is a sense of community and interconnectedness in helping our students find their definition of success,” Mendiaz-Rivera said.
Known as plática and convivencia, these Chicano/Chicana and Latinx principles inspire a collective, cultural environment which further propels the success of its participants.
“Plática is a type of conversational approach to sharing knowledge that is very traditional to the Latino community. Convivencia loosely translates to the act of sharing and coexisting in a space to create community,” Mendiaz-Rivera said.
Seeing the student as more than just someone completing a project is integral to El Puente principles.
“I think oftentimes students don't see themselves as scholars on this campus until they're part of a program, but every student on this campus is engaging in scholarly activities in one way or another. We don't want students to feel like they don't belong, that they're not smart enough or that they don't understand the academic world, when they do. We're living it through this program very clearly,” Cervantes said.
That’s something that continues beyond the year-long duration of the program. Countless El Puente alumni have discovered their real passions in life, and are more than happy to share that experience with newcomers.
“That's what we do in the program. We help our students build a network. We connect with them. We ensure that we see them as humans first and foremost, and that we help integrate their lived experience into their academic experience,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “That's really important for first generation, working class and students of color–to help bridge the gap that exists between their lived experience and academia.”
El Puente embodies the idea of going outside the classroom with college students, and outside the box. Part of that includes experiential trips to nearby colleges, to see if further research and graduate school is part of a fellow’s future.
“These experiences really are a big part of the program. They allow students to explore who they are and connect to their academic journey, whether it is to complete their bachelor's degree or move onto graduate school,” Cervantes said. “Sometimes this program really just helps students solidify what they want to pursue. We've had students who have gone on the experiential trip and said: ‘I really enjoyed visiting this school, but I really recognize that UNM is the place for me.’ El Puente and El Centro strive to do what's best for students.”
In fact, 96% of El Puente students ended up graduating from UNM and/or are currently enrolled. A large portion have also gone on to earn their graduate or professional degrees. Other El Puente alumni have ended up in prestigious graduate programs abroad, fully funded at Harvard and even back at UNM as faculty members.
“We reject the binary notion of at-risk students or cream of the crop students. There's a dynamic setup for students where you're either considered at-risk because of certain background factors or you're considered cream of the crop because of certain opportunities that you've had,” Mendiaz-Rivera said.
“We present an equitable opportunity for all students, regardless of what opportunities they've had in the past, to be able to define their success in academia and to really be able to form a community.” – El Puente Program Director Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera
The beauty of the El Puente approach is that sometimes the next chapter in someone’s life is not research-related in the slightest.
“Some of our students find that they don't like research or that they don't want to go to graduate school at this particular time in their life. I also consider that success. They have the opportunity to explore and to find out what they truly want to do,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “If they ever feel like they are ready for research or that they're ready for graduate school, they now have these tools to go back and do that.”
What’s especially important about this publication is that it showcases that this works. Now, any higher education institution with an underserved student population has a step-by-step guide on how to incorporate research and community for the better.
“The process of writing the article was difficult because we had to push back against notions of the place of student affairs in research and some of the theoretical frameworks that we use when approaching this research program,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “I think it's unconventional, but then I also think there's a lack of understanding of how to bridge students' cultural experiences with their academic experiences.”
The applications are already closed for this highly competitive cohort, but Cervantes anticipates there to be many more years and opportunities for future students. The next application cycle opens in April of 2024.
“This is why I love my job. I get to see students go through this journey of self-discovery. It's really fulfilling for me to know that I was able to contribute to their journey and to their confidence,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “They're all brilliant, so sometimes they just need a little push to help them. I always tell them, ‘Believe in yourself the way that I believe in you!’”