Photo looks down at a graduate's cap, decorated with flowers, a bow, and colored construction paper.
At the 2022 Chicanx Latinx Graduation Ceremony, a graduate wears a cap that says, “Por ustedes y para ustedes,” or “For you and for you.”

In Focus: Empowering Latinx students to reach their potential

A bold new effort aims to transform our campus culture and better reflect Latinx communities and perspectives in our teaching, learning, service, and research

Like many students in the Eastern Coachella Valley, Natalie Araujo didn’t have family members who could advise her on college. She joined a federal college preparatory program and eventually applied to eight universities — all of which she got into. When it came down to UCLA and Berkeley, the opportunity arose to visit campus for four days alongside more than 400 admitted high school seniors.

During that weekend, Araujo visited a recruitment center, attended ethnic studies lectures, and went to Cal Day, Berkeley’s annual open house. The environment ultimately drove her choice. “It felt like a big, big family. Each day, I fell more and more in love,” she says.

Araujo is one of thousands of students whose journey to Berkeley epitomizes the Latinx Thriving Initiatives (LTI), a bold effort to transform our campus culture and better reflect Latinx communities and perspectives in our teaching, learning, service, and research. In 2018, Berkeley announced a commitment to achieve Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) status by 2027, a federal designation for schools that enroll at least 25 percent Latinx undergraduates. The designation would open doors to more funding for Latinx-serving programs, facilities, and services. As of fall 2022, 20.8 percent of new undergraduates identified as Latinx.

Latinx: a gender-neutral alternative to Latina or Latino

Becoming an HSI is not just about meeting a numeric goal. It is about stepping up to ensure every member of our Latinx community thrives. For students, thriving means having equitable access to every opportunity that supports their educational journey, including academic counseling; financial aid, scholarships, and fellowships; food, housing, and other basic needs; and participatory learning and mentoring experiences.

In 2019, the Haas, Jr. Fund made a suite of gifts to Berkeley to advance recruitment and programming efforts. President and CEO Cathy Cha M.C.P. ’96 says the fund is particularly interested in Latinx students because, for the first time in state history, Latinx people make up nearly 40 percent of California’s population.

“You could come from so many different walks of life, and Berkeley fundamentally values you and your life path.” — Cathy Cha M.C.P. ’96

“Many Latino students might think Cal is not for them academically, or isn’t inclusive enough, or that it’s unaffordable,” Cha says.“ In all those cases, philanthropy can support new outreach approaches, as well as efforts to create a welcoming place where they can thrive and succeed.”

Cha says the fund shares Berkeley’s values in welcoming all students. “You could come from so many different walks of life, and Berkeley fundamentally values you and your life path,” she says. “It tries to respect students and help them reach their potential.”

The following stories introduce us to three people who represent different points along the spectrum of reaching and serving students — and who are pushing Berkeley from being a Latinx-serving institution to a Latinx-thriving one.

Setting students up for success
Photo of Yvette in a gold top and white jacket, standing near a bed if white flowers.

Yvette Flores ’01. Photo by Keegan Houser.

When Yvette Flores ’01 asked her high school counselor about applying to colleges, she didn’t receive much information or incentive. At the same time, her mother didn’t attend college. “She made me feel like I could be anything I wanted,” says Flores, “but she didn’t know how to navigate the college application process.”

Flores figured it out — and got into Berkeley. Once she arrived, she tapped into an array of services that helped her traverse Berkeley’s bigness, select classes, and connect with other Chicanx and Latinx students and cultures.

In 2022–23, CEP participants submitted nearly 56,000 college applications.

Today Flores is passing on the support she received through the Center for Educational Partnerships (CEP), where she helps run 10 programs that work to increase college access and success for low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented K–12 and community college students. That includes guiding students through the financial aid and college application process and offering courses, field trips, events, and other preparatory experiences.

Beyond direct services, CEP is also at the center of a statewide effort to align nonprofits, employers, community colleges, and other entities in helping students pursue careers that would benefit California. “We’re all working to increase opportunities and support in a way that we’ve never done before — together,” she says.

The program’s impact speaks volumes: In 2022–23, CEP participants submitted nearly 56,000 college applications.

Flores sees her purpose as setting students up for success. “So many people feel like they just survive Berkeley,” she says. Instead, she wants them “to have what they need to excel and enjoy… then leave this institution on graduation day feeling like they had an amazing experience.”

Living life as you are
Photo of Nilo in light-colored pants and long-sleeved black top, sitting on a concrete wall by white flowers.

Nilo Baños. Photo by Keegan Houser.

Most of us are lucky if just one person or program takes a chance on us. Nilo Baños’ luck hasn’t run out yet.

First there was Ms. Whang, his high school English teacher who nudged him to apply to Berkeley and helped him structure his college essay and shop for college essentials. Then there was the Undocumented Student Program, which connected him to emergency funding for basic needs and to a paid research project.

Lastly there was Elisa Diana Huerta, the former director of the Multicultural Community Center (MCC) who identifies as a non-binary, queer Chicana. Baños was just beginning his gender transition when he started a different research project at the MCC. He didn’t know how to act and felt scared. “My mind blew into a million pieces. I was like, ‘What do you mean you’re my boss?’” says Baños. It was the first time he had ever seen someone like him in a leadership role.

Beyond completing academic work, thriving is "about being able to just be.” — Nilo Baños

Since then, Baños has found “the equivalent of a godparent” in Huerta, who continues to advise him on school and life. When his undocumented status raised fears about what lies beyond graduation in 2024, Huerta referred him to legal support to obtain a work permit.

Baños says “thriving” goes beyond completing academic work. “It’s not just papers and papers and quizzes and midterms and papers and papers,” he says. “It’s about being able to just be.”

If Huerta, who is now an associate vice chancellor, “is able to move through life as they are, and have these professional positions, then I can do that too.”

Showing others the way through
Photo of Luis in a white polo shirt and olive green pants, sitting on concrete stairs.

Luis Anaya. Photo by Keegan Houser.

As graduation nears, Luis Anaya is reflecting on his educational journey. “If you had told that six-year-old boy that he’d be at the best public university in the world getting a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering, he wouldn’t have known what that meant,” Anaya says of himself.

Born in El Salvador after the civil war, Anaya and his family immigrated to the United States in 2000 seeking a better life. He attended the University of Texas at Austin, fulfilling his parents’ dream. But his immigration status cast doubt on his ability to stay in the states. “What would happen if I couldn’t continue school, become a graduate student instructor, or do research?” he asks.

"I feel successful. I’ve chosen a career that will serve the public good, and I have many choices.” — Luis Anaya

Two doors opened for Anaya at Berkeley. Professor Bill Nazaroff offered him funding, and Professor Evan Variano hired him as a grader. If it weren’t for them, he says, “There’s no way I’d be here.”

Since then, Anaya has been sharing the hard lessons he learned, in hopes of easing others’ way. Several first-generation, undocumented, and/or Latinx undergraduates have joined him in conducting research on wastewater treatment processes. “Mentorship is about being honest, about helping them realize they don’t have to be perfect to pursue higher ed or careers,” he says.

Anaya once defined success as three first-author papers and a tenure-track faculty position. “I have none of those things,” he says. “But I feel successful. I’ve chosen a career that will serve the public good, and I have many choices. That’s not a terrible place to be.”

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