Several months later, after her first week as a freshman at UNM, Cervantes said she returned to El Centro because she wanted to get more out of her college experience in addition to attending classes.
“I went from a small school to this big university,” she said. “I was very involved in high school, and then I came to UNM and I didn’t really know anybody. I thought I would go check that place out again, and the next thing I knew, I found myself with a work-study position.”
She became active at El Centro, where she joined a group of students to advocate for increased funding for staff and programs at the state Legislature. She said it was this involvement that inspired her to pursue a career in student services.
Now, Cervantes is director of El Centro de la Raza, which has expanded to include more than 22 services aimed primarily at UNM’s 11,000 Hispanic and Latino students. These services include mentoring, advisement, cultural programs, scholarships, research opportunities, community events and facilities such as a library and free printing.
While it mainly focuses on support for undergraduate and graduate students at UNM, El Centro works with high schools throughout the city to schedule campus visits and advisement opportunities, such as the meeting Cervantes attended when she was a senior. She said that in many cases, just setting foot on a campus can inspire students to attend college after they graduate.
“We’ve learned a lot about motivating students and how important it is for them just to be on this campus, so that they can see themselves here,” she said. “A lot of them don’t ever understand that this is a place where they can belong, and we’re trying to change that.”
El Centro can be a valuable resource for students who want to earn a degree but need help with navigating the language of the institution. El Centro gives them the opportunity to meet with faculty mentors to help guide them towards their academic and professional goals, she said.
“Not all students have gone through the same educational opportunities, or have been given the same training or the same tools,” Cervantes said.
While El Centro offers support for students from all circumstances, she said it is especially valuable for students who have been marginalized due to their immigration or economic status. It works to advocate for UNM’s undocumented students as well.
For example, El Centro has opposed legislation that would restrict undocumented immigrants from receiving driver’s licenses. Cervantes said that this policy would prevent undocumented students from receiving UNM IDs.
“At El Centro we’re always trying to figure out how we can break down some of these barriers that, at the end of the day, just keep people out and don’t really have a place,” she said.
As a way to foster a culturally inclusive environment for UNM’s Latino and Hispanic students, El Centro hosts Raza Graduation once a year, which is conducted in Spanish. Cervantes said this is not meant to replace traditional graduation ceremonies, but to benefit students and their families who are looking for a more community - and family-oriented event.
According to El Centro’s website, the graduation “... is also an excellent way to celebrate the students’ accomplishments and younger students with role-models as they progress through their educational track.”
“It’s been really welcoming. There are a lot of humble people, a lot of people that have taken me in, especially here at El Centro. It has really helped me network and meet more people around here,” Trinidad Rodriguez, a senior psychology and Chicana and Chicano studies major, who is a transfer student from Pasadena, California.
Rodriguez said El Centro scholarships have helped her a lot, especially when she was transitioning to Albuquerque.
“They helped a lot with being able to get settled here in Albuquerque. I have used their advisement services, especially being able to get all the classes that I need, making sure I’m on track as well as advising me on my career and my choice of majors,” she said.
El Centro is important because of how they focus on being a home away from home, she said.
“Raza Graduation will be my first time actually on the stage and walking, and it’s one of the best things El Centro does, and it really shows its heart. It shows that its alumni and everybody that has been a part of El Centro is one big family,” Rodriguez said.
Cervantes said the most important thing El Centro does is provide an environment in which students can feel comfortable with themselves and their identity, but are also looking for new opportunities to pursue their goals.
“El Centro is open to all students who are looking for that kind of place that’s comfortable, but will also challenge you to grow,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just about building confidence.”
Lena Guidi is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DailyLobo.