A well-known leader in New Mexico, Dr. Laura Gutierrez Spencer has contributed to the academic success of thousands of students through her involvement with the New Mexico State University Chicano Programs scholarships.
Laura grew up in Silver City and received her doctorate from the University of New Mexico. In 1989, she joined the faculty of University of Nevada, Las Vegas — the first U.S-born Latina ever to do so. She taught for seven years, received tenure and became an associate professor.
In 1996, Laura was hired to direct the New Mexico State University Chicano Programs. She has held this position for nearly 20 years and has helped develop two scholarship programs that have made college viable for thousands of Latino and Hispanic students.
The Daniel D. Villanueva Student Leader Endowed Scholarship is one of which Laura is particularly proud. This scholarship was created for actively civic-minded students. The GPA requirements are lower than those required for other scholarships, an indicator of the demanding requirements of community involvement, Laura said. However, the leadership experience students gain has proven extremely valuable.
“Danny Villanueva was a famous football player and English major and the editor of the school newspaper,” said Laura. “He was drafted by the L.A. Rams when they needed a kicker and he went to play for them. He played for the Dallas Cowboys, and after he retired, he began working in radio and television. He became one of the founders of Univision and Telemundo and was very involved in Latino media and politics until he passed away in June 2015. “
“Then he returned to his alma mater and began his fundraising efforts,” she continued. “He started with a golf tournament fundraiser, but it was difficult to make it work. When I came in, we turned the golf tournament into a breakfast. Danny brought major guest speakers — entrepreneurs, senators, and business owners.”
“Christina Chavez Kelley’s strong fundraising efforts drew corporate sponsorships, and we achieved a goal of half a million dollars,” Laura said.
The interest on money invested pays off each year’s scholarships. Danny Villanueva died this year, and Laura feels fortunate to have been part of his legacy.
Another scholarship program that she is proud of is the Hispanic Faculty/Staff Caucus, possible thanks to the contribution of staff and faculty members on campus. Contributions are collected through payroll deductions as well as fundraisers.
“We did it because we saw the need for it,” said Laura. “We knew we had been fortunate to have received our education and we saw many students struggling in New Mexico. We are a land-grant institution, in that our focus is to provide a practical education in engineering and agriculture, without excluding the humanities, but with a focus on educating the working class of the state. This was possible thanks to a bill called the Morrill Act.”
Faculty and staff are driven to contribute due to a family history of activism, Laura said.
“Many of them were activists when they were students, and I am happy to say that they all have a social conscience. When the Hispanic Faculty/Staff Caucus started there was little representation of Hispanics and Latinos in the faculty, which is why they understand the importance of promoting minority students.”
The Chicano Programs department considers advocacy efforts as vital; they are a bridge between the students, the community, and the administration, Laura said.
”Sometimes students come up with an idea that works for them and we bring it up to the administration,” she said. “They don’t always agree with us, but we consider that a very important part of our jobs.”
By working with students daily, Laura and her teammates are aware of the issues affecting them. The Chicano Programs department provides more than scholarships; it provides a comfortable and safe environment for students to go to for advice and other student services. Tutors help them prepare for their studies through college workshops and committees tell students’ parents that yes, their sons and daughters can attend college, and here’s how.
Laura’s personal motivation to help Latino students stems from her family’s community involvement.
“Both my parents were educators and activists and my mother was a pioneer in bilingual education,” Laura said. “She was one of the first people in the country to teach Spanish to native speakers in the 1950s. She taught those who were fluent but needed help in becoming literate in their native language by understanding grammar and the differences between formal and informal Spanish.”
Her mother’s bilingual program challenged the status quo that prevented minority students from being competitive. In a three-year period, her students were more advanced than the students in some of the top classes in the school. The resistance that followed her mother’s ideas motivated Laura, and she considers her mother one of the biggest influences in her life.
“Thanks to my mother I was able to start in college in fourth-year literature class reading Cervantes, which is like reading Shakespeare,” she said. “I mean I struggled but I was able to do it. Seeing all the good my mother had done really inspired me.”
Laura said she has enjoyed a rewarding career. She is satisfied knowing that she has helped students defray some of the costs associated with attending the university. But most importantly, she is pleased to have helped them to believe in themselves.
Laura shared some advice for others who are in a position that allows them to contribute to students’ success:
“Help them open their eyes to different perspectives of life. That’s what I tried to do with all my students,” she said. “For the most part, the faculty is very sensitive to minority students, and that’s good, but you also want to give people the dignity of expecting them to be the best that they can be.”
Laura continues to live in New Mexico. In the future, she wants to create lasting changes through filmmaking. She hopes to produce a film to raise social awareness through positive storytelling.