Paving a path to success for Latinx communities

Dedicated to transforming Hispanic Serving Institutions and transforming a campus environment that builds a sense of belonging from enrollment to graduation.

Future educator Dori Trujillo is studying at Fresno State, working her way toward earning a multiple subject teaching credential. After graduating in the summer of 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies, Trujillo knew her next step was to become an educator. What she didn’t know was that it would lead her to becoming a project assistant with Enseñamos en el Valle Central.

Enseñamos en el Valle Central is an innovative collaboration between Fresno State, Fresno City College and Reedley College that focuses on strengthening pathways for underrepresented future educators.

“With Enseñamos, I learned to appreciate my bilingualism as the beautiful asset it is,” said Trujillo.

Enseñamos responds to the many intricate challenges higher education poses, such as connecting with faculty and peers, obtaining academic counseling and mentoring support, interpreting degree plans and meeting graduation requirements.

“Enseñamos en el Valle Central places a strong emphasis on fostering a sense of belonging for students,” said Dr. Patricia D. López, director of the Enseñamos initiative and assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Fresno State.

“We are intentional about going above mere enrollment of Latinx students and work hard to transform and influence how the institution reflects the students we serve. Our programmatic events are contributing fundamentally to a campus culture that affirms the rich history and cultural contributions of Latinx communities in the Central Valley,” said Lopez.

Fresno State has seen a drastic increase in incoming first-generation students of Hispanic ethnicity, particularly in the past couple years. In 2016, 52.6% of the student body was composed of incoming Hispanic students. That increased to 59.4% in 2020, representing well over half of the campus population. Some colleges, such as the Kremen School of Education and Human Development, saw an even greater increase, catapulting from 59.2% in 2016 to 70.8% in 2020.

One of the many factors that have contributed to the increase in Hispanic students pursuing higher education in the Kremen School is the $3.75 million Title V grant, Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program, which created the foundation for the Enseñamos initiative to launch in 2018. Over the past four years, the initiative has flourished and taken shape, promoting the success of future Latinx teachers.

Nearly 65% of Fresno State students are the first generation in their families to earn a college degree, which can change the future trajectory of their lives.

“Many first-generation students are left estranged by higher education through often tedious and confusing processes and a lack of connection to faculty and courses that are detached from their communities and experiences,” said López. “These institutional roadblocks leave students feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, at times squeezing them out of the system altogether.”

Programs such as Enseñamos en el Valle Central respond to these ongoing patterns by focusing on institutional barriers while building up first-generation students to navigate higher education, allowing them to begin their educational journey with peace of mind.

“I have felt I can count on my colleagues as family,” said Trujillo. “I’ve found the best mentorship in our director, Dr. López. The way she advocates for students like me inspires me to build the same environment in my future classroom.”

Adding to the need for more support to Latinx students is a growing demand to increase the number of Latinx teachers, particularly those who can teach in bilingual classrooms. Minority students in higher education at times feel out of place or have experienced alienation among their peers. Having professors who are culturally affirming, approachable and who represent the diverse Latinx culture, allow students to feel more at ease and less isolated in the classroom. They are more likely to engage and ask for assistance if they feel seen and are given a warm and inviting learning environment.

Through collaboration the Enseñamos initiative begins working with students at the high school and community college level — providing counseling guidance and strengthening transfer pathways into Fresno State, structuring a smooth transition through higher education and providing continuous support to enter teaching credential programs.

López has spent the past four years collaborating with students, staff, faculty and community members, watching her vision grow as the program continues expanding.

Enseñamos en el Valle Central has gained traction alongside growing recognition of minority-serving institutions and the critical role they play in serving diverse students of color who are increasingly the face of higher education.

This includes a recent proclamation by President Joseph R. Biden declaring Sept. 12 through 18 as National Hispanic-Serving Institutions Week:

“I call on public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to observe this week with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that acknowledge the many ways these institutions and their graduates contribute to our country.”

Enseñamos en el Valle Central continues to exemplify the goal of expanding educational opportunities and improving academic and career attainment among Latinx students. This fall they are kicking off a fall Plática and Taller series that centers art, culture, identity and healing, as a way to inspire dialogue among diverse communities and thoughtfully consider what it means to serve Central Valley communities. Events are open to all and can be found on their website along with an inventory of past events such as their highly successful anti-racism series during the 2019-20 academic year.

While many of these events transpire during specific windows of time, Enseñamos understands that students have extremely busy schedules with class conflicts so to guarantee equal access for all participants, they record each event and post details to their website which can be found at this link here.

(Written by Audra Burwell, a creative writing student, and assistant professor Patricia D. López)

Student-athletes make lasting impact on Valley’s youth

Fresno State women’s soccer player Kayla King is driven to help others — and she has shown it throughout her college years. 

When she started her postsecondary education, she began working as a tutor for school-aged children. Tutoring came naturally to King and created an opportunity for her to work directly with children.

While earning a degree in liberal studies at Fresno State, King excelled at juggling both academics and athletics.

“Being a student-athlete really teaches you a lot about, not only yourself, but how important managing your time is,” said King, a Hollister native. “It teaches you great life lessons that people end up taking with them for the remainder of their lives.” 

Being a student-athlete provided King with a variety of opportunities to partner in the community. In April, King and other student-athletes spoke virtually at a College and Career Day at Wawona K-8 School in Fresno Unified School District. This annual event encourages students to think about their future and what opportunities lie ahead.

“We want local heroes for our kids,” said Bob Nelson, superintendent of Fresno Unified. “We want our kids to see student-athletes who came from their neighborhood and who will inspire them.”

At the College and Career Day, King connected with 15 seventh and eighth graders and shared her story of how she became an athlete. She remembers them asking many questions about what it’s like to be a student-athlete. 

Fresno State is fully immersed in the community and continues to find ways for increased collaboration. In just one year, student-athletes volunteered 4,000 community service hours at 460 organizations. In addition to serving the community, the athletics department had a collective 3.30 GPA in spring 2020. This marked the 19th consecutive semester of over a 3.0 departmental GPA. 

“We’re always looking for opportunities to impact our community, and specifically the youth in our community, in a positive manner,” said Terry Tumey, Fresno State’s director of athletics.

With over 6,000 new undergraduate students overall enrolled in fall 2020, 52 percent are from Fresno County. 

“Our staff, coaches and student-athletes understand the important platform we have, and we all collectively consider it an honor to give back and inspire the next generation of Bulldogs and leaders in our Valley,” Tumey said. “Partnering with local school districts to help encourage the importance of education is a privilege for us.”

Bulldog Buddies

Kendall Boliba, a Fresno State athletics academic adviser, grew up as an athlete and remembers engaging with the community in a pen pal project when she was younger. The program was impactful for her, and she wanted to create something similar in the Valley. 

In fall 2019, Boliba partnered with Prince Marshall, then principal of West Fresno Elementary School in Washington Unified School District. She pitched the idea of creating a pen pal program with Fresno State student-athletes. 

With support from Marshall and West Fresno Elementary teachers, Boliba organized for the women’s water polo team to become pen pals with a second-grade class in 2019. She called it the Bulldogs Buddy program. 

This program was powerful for West Fresno Elementary, not only by directly connecting students to collegiate athletes but also by positively reinforcing the power of reading and writing.

According to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (2019), 53% of third-grade students in Fresno County didn’t meet the ELA/Literacy standards. And 83% of West Fresno Elementary third graders didn’t meet the standards.

West Fresno Elementary worked the Bulldogs Buddy program into its curriculum. The second graders wrote back-and-forth with their Fresno State pen pals and worked on incorporating open-ended questions and weekly writing prompts. Marshall said he saw a direct impact on the students’ eagerness to read and write.

“Writing is one of the most difficult tasks for our students, especially second-language learners,” said Beth Liberta, second-grade teacher at West Fresno Elementary. “When we write narratives, informational or persuasive stories the students struggle to develop proper sentences and those sentences are often very short and without details. However, when my students write to their Fresno State Buddies, their sentences are endless and so full of life.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily paused the program, Boliba plans to expand the Bulldogs Buddy program across multiple school districts in the Central Valley.

While this program provides a way for Fresno State student-athletes of any major to engage with and positively impact Valley youth, some decide to make a career out of teaching.

After King graduated with her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, she immediately enrolled in Fresno State’s early childhood education graduate program. She is eager to get into the classroom and begin directly impacting Valley youth. She hopes to become an elementary school teacher and one day work with students with special needs.

Lizbeth Cortez Villa named undergraduate dean’s medalist

Lizbeth Cortez Villa is a first-generation college student and immigrant who came to the United States in hopes of achieving her parents’ dream – pursuing higher education. She instilled within herself a strong drive to excel in education. Because of this, Villa was able to pursue a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies while working her way through college.

During summer and winter breaks, she would work in the fields and during the semester she found jobs that allowed her to prioritize education. Being dedicated to her education resulted in receiving multiple scholarships which helped make her educational journey possible.

Villa is the oldest sibling in her family. She grew up caring and helping those around her, not only in the home but also in the classroom. “As a young student, most of my teachers paired me off with students who were non-English speakers,” said Villa. “And I would be in charge of translating what we were learning.”

At first Villa enjoyed the opportunity to help her peers but she realized it was jeopardizing her own education. Now that Villa has graduated, she plans to enroll in Fresno State’s Multiple Subject Teaching Credential program to bring awareness into the classroom and better the education system when it comes to working with migrant students who face language barriers.

While pursuing her undergraduate degree, Villa became a Scholar in Service with the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning. She completed over 640 community service hours, most of which at the Wesley United Methodist Church. At Wesley she worked on many events with the community, doing blood pressure checks, handing out food, and bridging the gap with law enforcement. Now she has been offered a job as a Sunday School teacher at Wesley.

“Her ability to adapt, leadership skills, and self-motivation, prepare her beautifully,” said Mayra Cubos, Wesley Non-Profit Administrator. “I know she will excel in her field and go on to change many lives for the better.”

In addition to being a Scholar in Service, Villa also received the Undergraduate Dean’s Medalist award from the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. She is a distinguished graduate who strives far.

After teaching in the Central Valley, Villa plans to continue her education and earn a master of science degree in counseling and then go on to earn a doctorate in educational leadership.

“My goal is to open a nonprofit organization that will provide support for families and students in the Valley,” said Villa. “I hope to inspire the young minds of our generations and prove to them that we are capable of so much in this world.”

From dad and mom’s school to law school; grad carves his own path

Written by: BoNhia Lee, Fresno State News

Misty Her remembers walking her son Ryan, then only 2 years old, from their apartment across the street from Fresno State toward the Kremen Education Building to meet her husband after he finished class. 

She told Ryan that he could attend Fresno State someday.

She and her husband, Phong Yang, met at the University. She earned a degree in liberal studies. He earned a French degree. They got married, started a family and supported each other through master’s programs also at Fresno State — Her in school supervision and administration while Yang studied linguistics.

Fresno State was the obvious choice when it was time for Ryan to choose a college, he said. It was close to home, it has a good reputation and he could catch a ride with his dad, who works at the University. 

While their Fresno State ties are strong, Ryan’s parents insist they never pressured him to become a Bulldog. Yang, now director of admissions and recruitment at Fresno State, jokes that he would have been the first to recruit his son. But their children, including daughter Grace who is a Fresno State sophomore, and youngest son Gabriel, a fifth-grader in the Fresno Unified School District, have the opportunity to go anywhere and discover themselves, their parents said. 

Ryan graduates Fresno State in May with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. In the fall, he heads to the University of Nebraska for law school with a goal of working for an organization where he can defend First Amendment rights. 

“These last two years went by really fast,” Ryan said. “I’m very excited to be graduating, particularly because I’ve been accepted to law school where the stuff I want to learn and what I want to work in will be at. Let me go, already!”

For Her, she still sees little Ryan. 

 “I feel like I just brought him home. I still see him as this little boy. I can’t believe that he’s graduating,” she said. “He’s worked really hard. He said, ‘I’m going to go and finish in four years’ and before you know it, four years is already here.”

Ryan grew up in his mom’s Fresno Unified classrooms watching her decorate the boards on the wall for her students. Then he watched her climb through the administration ranks to her current post as the district’s deputy superintendent. 

Read more.

Liberal Studies student named University Volunteer of the Year

Written by: BoNhia Lee, Fresno State News

Ariel Mendez, a graduate student majoring in liberal studies, was awarded the 2021 University Volunteer of the Year Award. The award, which includes a $1,500 scholarship, is given each year to a student who has made a difference in the community through their time and talent. Mendez has volunteered more than 480 hours over the past year.

After learning that California has one of the largest homeless populations, and identifying other states with high homeless populations, Mendez was eager and passionate about finding a way to help. Starting in her hometown of Tulare, Mendez began handing out donated clothing she collected from family and friends to the homeless. Then, she drove to five states in five days handing out the remaining clothes. At the beginning of 2020, Mendez drove to over 10 states in 12 days giving out more donated items and things that she purchased herself.

When the pandemic hit, Mendez shifted her efforts to create COVID-19 relief packages with food, water, hygiene supplies, journals, blankets and clothing. She also baked over 400 cookies for the homeless in Fresno.

Her efforts did not stop there. Knowing that farmworkers were deemed essential and working to provide food to the Valley and beyond during the pandemic, Mendez drove to Farmersville, Exeter and Tulare County and donated Gatorade and water to farmworkers. Mendez donated over 1,500 meals and over 2,000 hygiene and essential care products to homeless families and essential workers. She keeps a basket of food, water, and hygiene supplies in her trunk so that she can help anyone in need.

Read more.

Fresno State professor appears on one of Trebek’s final Jeopardy! airings

While recording an episode of Jeopardy!, as a contestant in September, Dr. Frederick Nelson fondly remembers sharing a personal moment with the late Alex Trebek, the beloved host of the popular ABC game show. Nelson, associate professor and chair of the Liberal Studies Department at Fresno State, joked that people at home might not recognize him in a suit and tie – as opposed to the shorts, sandals and Hawaiian shirts he’s known for wearing around campus.

Nelson’s episode will air on Thursday, Dec. 3 (check local listings for time) on ABC, as the network broadcasts the final shows Trebek recorded before his death on Nov. 8 at age 80.

Trebek hosted Jeopardy! for over 35 years and holds the Guinness World Record for hosting the most episodes of a single game show — over 8,200. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March 2019, Trebek continued to host the show. His last day in the studio was Oct. 29.

“Alex was a gift to this planet,” Nelson said. “He was simultaneously super smart, funny, professional and kind.”

Dr. Frederick Nelson

Nelson is an associate professor of science education and hoped for categories in science fiction or physics. He would have also been happy to see a “Lord of the Rings” category, one of his favorite novels and movies. Unfortunately, those categories didn’t come up, but he did enjoy answering questions about music.

“Alex really enjoys the game played well and complimented us on our play,” Nelson said. “It felt really good to get a compliment from Alex for play in a category or wagering and answering a Final Jeopardy clue.”

This isn’t the first time Nelson got a taste of “Jeopardy!” In 2009 he was in the contestant pool, but never got selected for the show. Nelson said this year’s process was different. After taking an online test in February, he got a virtual audition consisting of a second test and a practice game. Then, at the end of August, he got the call inviting him be a contestant.

“It’s been a bucket-list item for me,” Nelson said.


(Photos courtesy to Jeopardy Productions, Inc and Frederick Nelson.)

See why this liberal studies graduate strives to put others first

While walking through the streets of San Francisco when she was 7 years old, Ariel Mendez remembers seeing a man holding a sign that read, “hungry.” She and her dad had just finished lunch, and she got his permission to give the man her leftovers. This is the first memory Mendez has of helping the homeless.

Mendez has always loved school and valued her education. Growing up in Tulare, education was an outlet for her.

As Mendez grew into a young woman, she continually felt driven to help others. While attending Tulare Union High School, she created a club called “Be The Change.” The club collected donations of new socks that the students gave to the homeless for winter. For Mendez, this was just the beginning of her efforts to help those around her.

Seeing the impact of donating socks to the homeless ignited a flame inside Mendez. She knew she had the power to do so much more.

“God put this in my heart,” Mendez said. “I have always seen myself as second, and I put others first.”

Mendez would continually visit the homeless and donate items of need. She noticed water and toothbrushes were a priority, so she would visit her local Costco and use her personal savings to stock up on supplies.

In June 2019, Mendez conducted her first large-scale donation to the homeless. She took to social media and asked her followers to donate any clothing they no longer needed. She received an overwhelming amount of support from her family and community. With a car full of donated clothes, she researched which states had the worst homelessness, and she started to drive. Mendez was able to reach five states in five days, donating all of the clothing to the homeless. She conducted a second round of donations and was then able to visit nine states in 10 days.

During her efforts to give, she has studied to become a teacher. She will graduate this May with her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a multiple subject teaching credential. As a transfer student from the College of the Sequoias, Mendez enrolled in the Fresno State Visalia Campus’ Integrated Teacher Education Program. The program allows students to transfer from a partner community college in the South Valley to the Fresno State Visalia Campus and complete a bachelor’s degree and teaching credential in just two additional years, all while staying in the South Valley.

Fresno State is celebrating its first graduating cohort from the program. With a graduating class of 28 students, cohorts have been growing year over year, with an expected enrollment of 50 students for fall 2020.

“Ariel will be an example of a teacher committed to social justice that we hope for from the South Valley [program],” said Dr. Frederick Nelson, associate professor and chair of the Department of Liberal Studies. “Her passion and dedication have been present throughout the program and have spread among many of her colleagues in the cohort. We are proud of her as a graduate of the first cohort of the South Valley [program].”

Mendez said she has always wanted to be a champion for children. Through teaching, she will be able to give love, support and nourishment to children.

In true Mendez fashion, she is dedicating her first teaching paycheck to go completely to helping people in need. She has already accepted a position with the Peace Corps. Once travel restrictions are lifted, Mendez plans to travel to Africa to work as a teacher. “My job as a teacher,” Mendez said, “would be to improve the English language speaking, writing, teaching and learning capacity of students, teachers, schools and communities in order to improve access to academic and/or professional opportunities, information and resources.”