Legacy of Maria Teresa Velez Seen in Members of Class of 2016
A number of May graduates of the UA directly benefited from the work of the associate dean of the Graduate College, who died in April.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Relations - Communications
May 11, 2016


May graduate David Maestas had a difficult time imagining himself as a graduate student, but that was before joining the UA's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, which Maria Teresa Velez helped establish. After graduating, he joins a cell and
May graduate David Maestas had a difficult time imagining himself as a graduate student, but that was before joining the UA's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, which Maria Teresa Velez helped establish. After graduating, he joins a cell and tissue engineering laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. (Photo: Raymond Sanchez/UANews)

David Maestas is a legacy student of the late Maria Teresa Velez, who spent her professional career expanding higher education opportunities — especially at the graduate level — to underserved and underrepresented student populations.

On Friday, Maestas will be among the University of Arizona's graduating students to directly benefit from Velez's work, which included creating and funding programs and services to recruit, train, retain and graduate students.

"I feel that my time at the University of Arizona has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life," said Maestas, who has earned degrees in biomedical engineering, molecular and cellular biology and also biochemistry. He has been accepted into the top-ranked biomedical engineering Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University.

Maestas is an example of the type of student Velez was determined to support.

A Cuban immigrant, Velez had to leave her family behind and move to the United States during her early teenage years under Operation Peter Pan, a mass exodus program created after Fidel Castro had established communist control in her home country.

Velez, who was associate dean of the UA Graduate College until her death on April 13, held that because those with graduate degrees are among the world's knowledge producers and solution generators, underrepresented students should be supported in pursuing advanced degrees.

The benefit, she believed, would extend beyond institutional barriers and into communities, addressing issues of inequity.

"In working with students who come from low-income backgrounds and are first-generation college, Dr. Velez always understood how well these students respond to our structured academic interventions and emerge as highly resourceful and resilient individuals," said Andrew Huerta, academic services manager for the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, or UROC, in the Graduate College.

"Through their dedication to research and the goals of our programs, these graduates have been able to exceed expectations and gain admission into top graduate programs at the UA and around the nation," Huerta said.

Served as Mentor and Fundraiser

Velez spent three decades mentoring students. During her tenure at the UA, she garnered about $40 million in external funds to recruit, train, retain and graduate students in support of campus diversity initiatives.

Under her leadership, the UA became a top-ranking institution in the nation for graduating American Indian students with doctoral degrees, and a top-10 institution for graduating Hispanic students with doctoral degrees.

Another May graduate and mentee of Velez is Thomasina Blackwater (Navajo), a participant in the UA's Pre-Medical Admission Pathway program, who is earning a Master of Science in cellular and molecular medicine. The intensive, 12-month medical school preparation program provides conditional admission to the UA College of Medicine – Tucson for those who complete it.

"Dr. Velez was someone who carried genuine faith and belief that all her mentees could succeed in their respective STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. With Dr. Velez, our conversations were never about 'if I get there' but 'when I get there,' which was a quality I really loved about her," said Blackwater, now poised to begin medical school at the UA in the summer with an interest in rural health and family medicine.

Andrea Fulgham, also a May graduate, was involved with the Summer Research Institute, or SRI, another program Velez helped to establish.

After her husband retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, Fulgham moved from California to Tucson, deciding to pursue a degree in linguistics with a focus on language revitalization.

"My participation in SRI has proven to be one of the most valuable experiences in my academic career," Fulgham said, adding that the preparation she received in the program helped her to score well on the GRE for graduate admissions.

Fulgham will begin her graduate studies in linguistics at the UA in the fall, intending to aid endangered-language communities. "It has been a lot of hard work, but I'm extremely happy and grateful to be here," she said.

Born in Mexico and raised in Tucson, Alexandra Elvira Samarron Longorio, who was an undocumented student, was the recipient of a scholarship established by Las Adelitas Arizona in Velez's name: the Dr. Maria Teresa Velez Las Adelitas Scholarship.

"My time as a student at the University of Arizona was made significant with the support of people like Dr. Velez, Las Adelitas de Tucson and many other people who supported my educational struggle," said Longorio, who is graduating with a degree in nutritional sciences.

She plans to complete an internship toward becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist, then to pursue a master's degree in public health at the UA.

"Having the scholarship support reminded me that there are people who believe in my skills and potential," said Longorio, who is committed to helping women and underserved communities gain improved access to preventive health resources.

Research and Hands-On Learning

Portland native Erica Hernandez spent two years at Pima Community College before transferring to the UA to pursue a Bachelor of Science in plant sciences. At the UA, Hernandez was involved in UROC and SRI.

Her involvement helped lead her to scholarly work. An undergraduate researcher for the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, Hernandez was involved at the Lunar Greenhouse Lab, aiding efforts to optimize plant growth in controlled environments, which could one day help support human space exploration.

Ultimately, Hernandez wants to help farmers figure out ways to produce more robust edible crops, especially in areas where it is difficult to grow. She has been accepted to the joint M.S./Ph.D. program in horticulture at Cornell University, with five years of full funding.

"Without all of my experience in undergraduate research and hands-on learning, I would undoubtedly not be where I am today," said Hernandez, who also was a NASA Space Grant intern for two years while at the UA.

"Thanks to the numerous opportunities I was offered, I am now able to look toward the future with excitement, knowing that I am in a very privileged position," she said. "I am profoundly grateful to all of the people who have helped me out by showing interest in my academic career and supported me through mentoring." 

During his time at the UA, Maestas was involved with UROC-PREP, which Velez helped to develop. The yearlong undergraduate research and mentoring program was established for students who come from backgrounds underrepresented in graduate education and have an interest in pursuing a graduate degree. 

Maestas, who arrived at the UA also after transferring from Pima Community College, said the University was his only option. 

"I did not have the financial resources to pay the tuition difference for an out-of-state university. For me, the UA was the only affordable and realistic option after completing an associate's degree in community college," Maestas said. "I am extremely lucky that the UA is such a great place."

At Johns Hopkins, Maestas will join a cell and tissue engineering laboratory, where he will expand his current work in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.

"My long-term goal is nothing short of helping to improve the world for millions through tissue engineering technology," Maestas said. "Instead of replacing a missing arm with a prosthetic limb or with electronic devices wired into the brain, I believe we can find ways to help the body regrow that missing arm. Instead of requiring organ transplants, it may be possible to coax the body into regenerating new organs or repairing the damaged ones entirely."

From a Dream to Reality

Maestas calls his involvement in UROC-PREP one of those "significant game changers." Before joining, he had minimal knowledge about what it would take to earn a doctorate.

"I was convinced I wasn't good enough to continue my education that far. My time with UROC-PREP changed that completely," Maestas said, citing the program's training on how to establish relationships with faculty, how to conduct scholarly research and how to prepare for graduate school.

"From improving our writing skills and preparing for the GRE, to the mentoring and coaching from the UROC-PREP staff, this program took the far-fetched dream of going to graduate school and made it an obtainable reality for me," he said. "In all honesty, UROC-PREP helped to change my life. Without their help, I question whether I would have applied for graduate school at all.

"It was so sad that Dr. Maria Teresa Velez passed this year, but the impact she has made in all of our lives will continue on for generations."

    Extra info

    The UA Graduate College will be offering the Dr. Maria Teresa Velez Diversity Leadership Scholarship. The award will be given annually to a degree- seeking master's or doctoral, new or continuing, graduate student who, through their teaching, research, or outreach and service, has demonstrated a commitment to furthering diversity in education, higher education and the community at large. The award will consist of a cash stipend of $25,000 and a Graduate College tuition scholarship. More information is available online: https://grad.arizona.edu/funding/opportunities/dr-maria-teresa-velez-diversity-leadership-scholarship

    Also, individuals who would like to celebrate Velez by donating a scholarship in her name should consider the Las Adelitas Arizona's Dr. Maria Teresa Velez Scholarship: http://www.lasadelitasarizona.org/Las_Adelitas/Las_Adelitas_Home.html.