Dr. Leona Lopez, director of Veterans and Military Student Services, recalls trying to navigate college as a first-generation Latinx student at Colorado State University Pueblo and then the University of southern Colorado. Without a strong support system, she made decisions that set her back in her studies. She didn’t like a class, for example, so she stopped going.
“I was naive and didn’t realize that I had to quit or withdraw from class. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered a process for appealing,” said Lopez, PhD, adding, “I want to make sure students are aware of the resources and services available to them. If the necessary resources do not exist, we will work to create them and make them available.
Lopez brings personal experience and 15 years of professional experience in higher education, as well as an unwavering passion for student success, to her role as leader of CU Denver’s HSI operations team. Formed in December 2021, following the university’s official designation as a Hispanic-serving institution, the group is tasked with addressing systemic issues that have impeded the campus’s ability to be an inclusive and welcoming place to all, with an emphasis on Latinx students, faculty, and staff. The work of the group, together with that of the operational team of ANAPISI, illustrates the university’s commitment to objective 1 of the 2030 strategic plan, becoming the first national institution in the service of equity.
“A critical way to achieve Goal 1 is to invest time, money and resources in the HSI and AANAPISI initiatives,” the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion said. Antonio Farias. “These are the key drivers that will propel this equity-serving institution down the road.”
Three key areas guide the team’s work
HSI’s seven-member operational team, comprised of students, faculty, staff, and community members, will work on three key areas over a three-year period. According to the team’s official charge, these areas include, but are not limited to:
- Support Latinx Students through identify proven practices that will create a culture of belonging; identify academic support to improve student achievement; identify grant opportunities and realign resources to support students holistically; implement programs that provide students with greater access to high-impact opportunities such as internships, research, and study abroad
- Supporting Latinx Teachers and Staff reviewing institutional policies and procedures to identify barriers to recruiting, hiring, onboarding, supervising, and promoting Latinx faculty and staff; research and identify plans for a Latinx policy and research center
- Campus support recommending culturally appropriate professional development for anything that engages engaging conversations specific to the Latinx community; explore how to recognize, research, and identify the history of the Latinx community at CU Denver and the region; establishing a disaggregated data collection process to better serve the diverse Latinx population on campus; ensure that support systems are in place to address the concerns of the Latinx community.
A meaningful opportunity to help all students
The operational team is currently in phase two: discovery and learning. During this phase, members will begin to conduct research and analyze data to better understand the Latinx community at CU Denver. “We’re here to ask the tough questions,” Lopez said. “It’s important that our students know they are represented, have a voice and matter here.
The group will use this research to create a fall 2022 roadmap and recommendations, which they will present to Farias and the Institutions Serving Equity Committee by the end of the spring semester. The roadmap will help guide DEI initiatives specific to the Latinx community, as well as secure grant opportunities for external funding resources.
After some trial and error, Lopez managed to navigate the higher education system, earning a bachelor’s degree in mass communication, a master’s degree in criminal justice, and a doctorate in educational leadership, research, and policy. She began her professional career in television and radio before finding her “right place” in higher education. She spent 13 years working with military and veterans as assistant site director and student services coordinator at Troy University in Fort Carson and as a counselor and program manager at Pikes Peak Community College in Fort Carson and at Peterson Air Force Base/Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. She joined CU Denver in November 2021. The college’s diverse demographic, she said, drew her to the role.
Lopez said a win for the HSI operational team is a win for the entire CU Denver community. The main task is to ensure everyone feels welcome, included and supported. “I think it’s extremely important for all students to understand how they contribute to the fiber and culture of the CU Denver community,” Lopez said. “It’s incredibly meaningful to have this opportunity to help our students.”
Meet the members
- Leona Lopez, Director of Veteran and Military Student Services
- Margarita Bianca, Professor and Director of Pathways2Teaching, School of Education and Human Development
- Dominic Martinez, CVA for DEI, Anschutz Medical Campus
- Aisury Vasquez: Director of Latinx Student Services, Center for Identity and Inclusion
- Alicia Roybal: Associate Director of New Student Orientation
- Rosanna Miller Salas: eLearning Experience Designer / LDT Student Agency Project Manager
- Anataly Uribe: Graduate Student, EdD Program, School of Education and Human Development
- Miranda Salcedo: Undergraduate Student, Communications Major, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
- Facilitator: Sarah Buller: Director of Organizational Effectiveness and Engagement, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance
- Grant Writer: Terry Hughes: Executive Director, National Veterans Training Institute
- Scheduler: Miguel Morris: Executive Assistant, DEI Office
- Executive Champion: Antonio Farias, Vice-Chancellor of DEI