For the first time in El Puente’s nine-year graduate school experiential trip history, students were able to trade their eight-hour drive for a one-hour plane ride thanks to the generosity of Southwest Airlines. The airline donated 34 e-tickets valued at over $13,000 to the program allowing them to save time while taking their graduate school journey to new heights. 

The donation was used to obtain Southwest Airlines tickets for 24 undergraduate fellows, four graduate fellows, and staff coordinators—meaning this year they spent less time getting to Phoenix and more time learning in Phoenix. For some students, both the journey and the destination were transformative. 

“It was nice to fly because it removed the stress of having to worry about driving out to Phoenix during inclement weather,” said Alejandro Mendiaz-Rivera, program director for El Puente Research Fellowship. “Some of our fellows had never flown before and Southwest gave them the opportunity to experience that.”

El Puente Research Fellowship uses culturally relevant and reflective pedagogies, curriculum, and praxis for first-generation, working-class college students beyond the traditional classroom. The purpose of the trip aligned with their mission to “foster a unique intellectual community premised on incubating the brilliance of Raza and historically underrepresented students.” 

“As an underrepresented group of students, being able to fly from Albuquerque to Arizona for our graduate school exploration trip was transformative,” José Garcia, El Puente scholar majoring in Mechanical Engineering, said. “It symbolized breaking barriers and defying odds since an entire cohort of students of color was able to fly to a different state and tour a graduate school, which is a privilege that very few students like us are afforded.”

Mario Silva, a UNM Computer Science student had never flown before taking this trip and admits to feeling excited and nervous at the same time. “Being able to fly for our grad school exploration trip was an amazing and thrilling experience,” he said. “Seeing how buildings became toy blocks and cars like tiny ants, as the plane ascended opened a new perspective for me. It made me realize that there is a whole world out there waiting to be explored, and I was eager to explore it.” 

Mendiaz-Rivera said flying gave the fellows more learning time during this academically focused trip featuring visits to both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. 

The itinerary included several information sessions about graduate school admissions, graduate and undergraduate research opportunities, a break-out session that included tours of different labs, and a graduate student panel where students were able to hear about real-world experiences. 

“The trip was invaluable because it showed me that graduate school is attainable, even for someone with the same background and upbringing as myself,” Garcia said. “Growing up, attending university was not the norm. The thought of graduate school was especially nonexistent.” 

Karina Bolanos El Puente Scholar preparing to board the flight to Phoenix.
Karina Bolanos El Puente Scholar preparing to board the flight to Phoenix.

Additionally, students were able to network with and build relationships in a casual setting during mixers and meals. “It was a great way to network with faculty and other students who are studying the same thing as me,” said Miguel Cuellar, psychology student. “What I gained from this trip was connections with faculty and students outside of UNM and a great opportunity to potentially attend Physician Assistant school with the University of Arizona.”

Mendiaz-Rivera said some of the students will be able now to attend a summer program at the University of Arizona because of this trip. “Actually being there and hearing from their students was extremely beneficial.”  

“After going on this trip, I realized that it is a possibility and that I will be pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering to propel my career forward and to inspire other scholars of color within my community and the University,” said Garcia. 

The extra time afforded them by Southwest Airlines allowed trip coordinators to be more intentional about group-building activities and provided more programming for their students. “Normally our students meet as a group every couple of weeks and often silos are created,” Mendiaz-Rivera said. “The extra time allowed us to bring the cohort into a larger setting and we were all able to get to know each other better and get a feel for what everyone else is doing.”

“During the trip, I was able to discover invaluable insights into diverse fields,” Silva said. “Engaging with faculty and peers, I was able to gain a deep understanding of what going to graduate school means, feeding my passion for continued academic pursuit.”

Like Silva, Garcia met many scholars and made lasting connections. “We met so many wonderful and welcoming graduate scholars that we could relate to in so many ways,” he said. “They showed us that it is possible for students of color to attend graduate school and that there are so many mentors and organizations out there that are willing to support and help us during our graduate and undergraduate journeys.

Mendiaz-Rivera said that he and the students are extremely appreciative of Southwest Airlines and institutional sponsors of the trip such as the UNM Office of the Vice President for Research, a long-term sponsor for El Puente, as well as ENLACE New Mexico and the UNM Division for Equity and Inclusion for their support of first-generation, low-income students of color in preparing them for graduate and professional school. 

“This type of investment in our community is what has proven successful for our students to receive their bachelor’s and pursue graduate and professional degrees,” he said.

To learn more, visit the El Puente Research Fellowship webpage