Velez Honored for Recruting Students of Color to Science

Velez Honored for Recruting Students of Color to Science

By La Monica Everett-HaynesUniversity Communications
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Maria Teresa Velez, associate dean and director of the UA's Graduate College, has been honored by a national science organization for her efforts to improve diversity in chemical sciences.

“It’s outside my discipline, so I was even more honored,” Velez said.

The American Chemical Society's Committee on Minority Affairs will present Velez with the Stanley C. Israel Regional Award at an awards ceremony in Park City, Utah, next month. Velez was nominated for the award by the UA chemistry department.

Velez believes that improving diversity everywhere is important – especially in the sciences, where people of color are continually underrepresented.

“The work force needs to reflect the characteristics of the population, and there is a great need for more Americans to become scientists and engineers if we want to continue to lead the rest of the world,” Velez said.

The award – which comes with a medal and $1,000 – goes to those who have “significantly stimulated or fostered activities that promote inclusiveness within the region,” according to the society.

“The CMA recognizes Dr. Velez as a leader and a mentor to students from Hispanic and Native American communities, by encouraging them to pursue undergraduate and graduate level studies and careers in the scientific professions and especially in the biomedical area,” stated a letter from the Committee on Minority Affairs that was sent to Velez this month.

The committee also wrote that Velez understands the “financial challenges that are common to families of these communities,” and pointed out that she has initiated programs at the UA to help those families.

“Dr. Velez also brings her message to national boards, service organizations and government commissions,” the letter noted.

Velez, who earned her postdoctoral degree in psychology from the UA, was hired as a psychologist by the University in1984 and became part of the earliest efforts to improve diversity among UA students. She trained staff in what was then called the Office of Minority Student Affairs on ways to offer additional support to students.

When she became the director of the UA’s Counseling and Psychology Services, Velez helped create programs for traditionally underserved groups, including those who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

She has been in her current position in the Graduate College, the unit that oversees the UA’s graduate programs, since1996, and is responsible for recruitment and admissions of graduate students in general, and underrepresented students in particular. She also is responsible for the training of teaching assistants.

Velez has served as the principal investigator for numerous grants, totaling more than $17 million, that have helped increase higher education access for low-income and first-generation students, as well as students of color. The funds also have helped to increase the number of undergraduates moving on to graduate studies.

Velez also is a member of the leadership workgroup with the UA’s ADVANCE program, which promotes diversity and equity among faculty while also working to boost research at the University.

The UA Hispanic Alumni, the Graduate and Professional Student Council and the Commission on the Status of Women have all honored Velez for her efforts. Last year, Velez received the Peter W. Likins Inclusive Excellence

In recent years, she has served as a consultant for Yale University’s diversity program and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and has also participated on review panels for the National Institutes of Health’s minority student development initiative and the National Science Foundation.

Some of the efforts that have distinguished Velez center of her support of tutoring and support services for student, the UA's Summer Writing Institute and research programs targeting underrepresented undergraduate students.

“We have been doing many things to increase the number of minority students in science and technology, and it’s paid off,” she said, adding that more than 20 percent of the graduate students at the UA are now students of color.

Her commitment to diversity stems from personal experience.

“I myself was never encouraged to get a Ph.D,” she said.

It seemed to matter very little that she had a 4.0 grade point average as a master’s student or that she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa, an academic honorary society.

“I wasn’t encouraged at all. But at some point, I decided it was important to me and that I was going to do it, regardless,” she said. “I believe that there is lots of talent out there, and often all minority students need help opening doors and for someone to provide encouragement.”

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