Conference Promotes ‘Evolution’ Toward Academic Equity

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

A group of multicultural educators who represented communities that have been historically underrepresented academically gathered at UTEP recently to discuss and debate the best ways to promote education through equity and social justice.

The verbal give-and-take during the 9th annual CIRCLE (Cross-cultural Institute for Research, Collaboration and Learning in Education) conference at The University of Texas at El Paso showed there would be no “one size fits all” solutions, even from within cultures, but members of each culture appreciated the passion and the perspectives that were shared to find ways to help future generations reach their full potential in school and society.Participants in the CIRCLE Leadership Forum, including scholars familiar with Mayan and Native American cultures, discuss issues of social justice in academia inside UTEP’s El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center. Photo courtey of UTEP College of Education.Participants in the CIRCLE Leadership Forum, including scholars familiar with Mayan and Native American cultures, discuss issues of social justice in academia inside UTEP’s El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center. Photo courtey of UTEP College of Education.

Approximately 120 individuals from the United States, Mexico and a handful of Central American countries were part of the weeklong event that concluded Aug. 2. The discussions and presentations, most led by Hispanic, Mayan and Navajo scholars, were conducted in UTEP’s El Paso Natural Gas Conference Center.

Among the participants was Wesley Thomas, Ph.D., chair and instructor of the School of Diné at Navajo Technical University (NTU) in Crownpoint, N.M., about 100 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Diné studies are for teachers, social workers, interpreters and health care workers using English and Navajo languages.

“I want to promote capabilities,” said Thomas, one of the event’s keynote speakers. He said he would focus on the words “justice, equity, access and respect” during the upcoming academic year to empower his students to seek grants and scholarships as they pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees. “This is not a revolution, but an evolution. We have to create equity, respect and an approach to justice on our terms. We have to create our own accessibility.”

In her welcoming comments, UTEP President Diana Natalicio told the audience that UTEP has worked for the past 25 years to develop academic opportunities for students who often were underestimated, undervalued and underrepresented. Today the University, through its “access and excellence” model and community outreach programs, works to ensure that no talent is squandered.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we change that sense for this border because far too many people here have accepted that depiction of our reality,” she said.

Through access and excellence, the University maintains the most affordable opportunities among national research institutions, and its academic and research opportunities are on par and in some cases better than schools with better name recognition.

“These are not entitled young people, but they are eager learners,” President Natalicio said. “What we find is the more excellence we develop on this campus through doctoral programs and through our research agenda, the better our students perform, and that should come as no surprise. You set the bar higher; you set the expectations higher and we all do more than we did before.”

She acknowledged the National Network for Educational Renewal (NNER) for its co-sponsorship of the conference with UTEP’s College of Education. The Seattle-based nonprofit promotes equity, stewardship and access to education, especially to underserved populations. President Natalicio praised the organization for its great leadership and vision on social justice issues.

NNER representative Tim Rush, Ph.D., professor of elementary and early childhood education at the University of Wyoming, said the conference allowed participants to build trust, relationships and understanding among educators from different cultures and learn from them. He added that many made plans to stay in touch. 

“We found that we had similar but solvable problems, and we look forward to other opportunities to collaborate,” he said.

As for the future, Rush urged the educators to follow the advice he was given as a young airman: “Do something, even if it’s wrong, but do something.” He later explained that his point was to move forward whether or not you reach a consensus with your peers.

Fidencio Briceño Chel, Ph.D., professor/researcher and coordinator of linguistics at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Merida, Yucatán, Mexico, said he enjoyed being part of the forum’s “rich conversations” that included many similarities along with a few sharp cultural differences.

“What’s clear is that to build an education with quality, you need to work on the inside but be open to diversity,” he said.