UTEP's best and brightest use their talents to teach the next generation
By Daniel Perez
Edna Martinez, Ruben Espinosa and Jose Lozano saw The University of Texas at El Paso as a stepping stone on their career paths. Martinez wanted to save lives as a physician. Espinosa planned to win cases as an attorney. Lozano expected to study distant galaxies as an astronomer.
Fate had a different plan for them, and UTEP played a significant role in their futures. Their University experiences redirected their career interests and stoked their desire to serve subsequent generations of college students. Each earned a Ph.D. and joined the professoriate. The trio was drawn to teaching and research, and each had the desire to be a role model as a Latino faculty member.
Excelencia in Education’s “The Condition of Latinos in Education: 2015 Factbook” states that Latinos made up only 4 percent of faculty in institutions of higher education in 2011, while at the same time they made up about 16 percent of the nation’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Martinez, Espinosa and Lozano are working to change that underrepresentation.
The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced in January 2016 that it had selected UTEP as one of three Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) involved in a $5.1 million, five-year effort to increase the number of Latino professors in the humanities – art, music, literature and languages – at the nation’s colleges and universities.
UTEP is proud of its established efforts to serve a 21st century student demographic, which has expanded the pool of Hispanic students who go on to earn doctoral degrees and succeed in academia or industry, said Charles Ambler, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Graduate School.
He pointed to research by the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics that showed in 2014 that UTEP was No. 1 among U.S. institutions of higher education that prepare Hispanic U.S. citizens and permanent resident undergraduates who go on to earn doctoral degrees.
“We want students to think in terms of their potential,” said Ambler, who added that part of UTEP’s central role as an HSI is to help students, especially first-generation college students, to understand their options. HSIs are colleges and universities with a full-time undergraduate enrollment that is at least 25 percent Hispanic. In fall 2015, UTEP enrolled 20,220 undergraduates, 83 percent of whom were Hispanic.
Martinez, Espinosa and Lozano are grateful to their UTEP faculty mentors who saw their potential and cultivated it. They embrace their role as teachers and their responsibility to inspire those who want to follow them into the professoriate.
The Born Teacher
Edna Martinez is the second of four children raised in an Army family that moved around the country and to Panama during her formative years. As a youth, the El Paso native was known for her ability to take charge.
“I made sure things happened,” Martinez said. She is an assistant professor of educational leadership at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. “I learned that it was OK to ask questions, OK to get involved and OK to not take ‘no’ for an answer.”
The family returned to the Sun City in time for her to graduate from El Paso’s Andress High School in 1999. Martinez enrolled at UTEP and earned her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences with a biomedical track in 2005, but she already had decided to affect lives on a different level. Her transition from wanting an M.D. to a Ph.D. started when she got involved in campus initiatives that enhanced chances for student success, such as New Student Orientation and CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program). What she witnessed were academic disadvantages and inequalities in the K-12 and higher education systems that she wanted to help change. She was accepted into UTEP’s Graduate School, where she pursued her master’s degree in educational administration.
“I loved the idea of staying on a college campus and turning it into a career,” the educator said. “I may not be able to save a life, but I can have an impact on a life the way my teachers had on mine.”
She was recruited to Clemson University in South Carolina for her doctoral work in educational leadership – higher education. She said the timely messages from her UTEP mentors added a more humanistic element to teaching beyond the classroom. She earned her Ph.D. in 2014, but also learned about faculty lifestyle that balanced teaching, service, research, publishing, presentations and conferences.
“I realized that I could do this,” she said.
Although courted by a more prestigious university, Martinez decided to start her professorship at CSUSB because the campus and the community reminded her of what UTEP and El Paso were like 20 years ago when the University was refining its access and excellence mission. She was drawn in particular to the chance to serve as a role model to the campus’ minority students. She balances her courseload and research with participation in on-campus mentorships and off-campus programs that promote higher education.
“I am a proud product of an HSI,” Martinez said, referring to UTEP. “I know the impact that HSIs and faculty of color can have on students, and that’s something I wanted to carry forward in my career.”
She shared examples of making time to assist students interested in the professoriate by helping them build their resumes with research assistantships and opportunities to present and publish their findings.
“There are HSIs across the country, but their faculty does not necessarily reflect their student population,” she said. For the 2015-16 academic year, UTEP’s percentage of Hispanic faculty was 36 percent. “It’s important for students of color to have faculty of color who can serve as mentors.”
The Bard Scholar
Ruben Espinosa is a first-generation American who dreamed of being a great novelist like Faulkner and Hemingway. Mostly quiet and shy, he began his lifelong love of books while a junior at El Paso’s Burges High School.
“Carpe Diem,” said Espinosa, an associate professor of English at UTEP who specializes in Shakespeare and early modern studies. The El Paso native quoted the famous Latin “Seize the Day” line from the 1989 movie “Dead Poets Society.”
Thinking pragmatically, the first-generation high school graduate enrolled at UTEP as a political science major and planned to become a lawyer. He considered his initial classes tedious, but enjoyed his literature electives, so he switched majors to English literature his sophomore year. He admitted to not knowing what he would do with his degree, so he added an education minor as a safety net.
“I had no ambition to be a teacher,” he said in his third floor office in Hudspeth Hall after a morning class. “It was a time of wanderlust. I was going to move to Austin (Texas) and be part of the art scene.”
Espinosa was a regular on the Dean’s List and had earned his teaching credential by the time he graduated in 1998. The El Paso Independent School District hired him as a full-time middle school English teacher. By the next year he was teaching at El Paso High School. To challenge himself, he enrolled in UTEP’s Graduate School and earned his master’s degree in English literature in 2001. His faculty mentors encouraged him to pursue a doctorate, which he considered a ticket to a higher education job where he could write and do research about literature on top of teaching.
“There was clarity at this point,” said Espinosa, who accepted an offer to study at the University of Colorado, where he received his doctorate in 2008. “I was committed to becoming a professor.”
He entered a tough job market where there were six applicants for every Shakespeare/Renaissance-focused tenure-track position across the country. One of his former UTEP professors advised him that the University would have a temporary visiting assistant professor position, but could not guarantee it would last beyond the academic year. Espinosa received several tenure-track offers, but decided to gamble on himself and took the UTEP job. He saw it as an opportunity to come home and to teach students who looked like him. UTEP put him on the tenure track the next year and he earned tenure in 2014.
The educator said teaching to a Latino population added value to his research, which has moved to Latino engagement with Shakespeare. He is proud of his work in the classroom, and with recruiting other Latino scholars who have strengthened his department.
“As one of the nation’s handful of Latino Shakespeares (scholars), I recognized that I was in a unique position and I don’t want to underplay that,” Espinosa said. “I think what our students offer is an invaluable perspective.”
He recalled when a graduate student in a Shakespeare course approached him at the end of the semester and told him that he was her first Latino professor who taught the kind of course that she hoped to teach one day.
“That spoke to diversity,” he said.
The Physics ‘Geek’
Jose Lozano was born into a family of educators that moved from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Juárez when he was young. His father was a professor of differential equations and civil engineering in Juárez, and other family members taught grades K-12.
The obedient and disciplined “nice kid” participated in organized sports through high school, when he became more interested in music. He joined several bands as lead guitarist and played everything from soft rock to heavy metal in bars and clubs throughout El Paso until he started his dissertation in 1998.
The math and science whiz became interested in astronomy in high school and saw himself as a researcher at a university or observatory. His first stop was UTEP, where he enjoyed the theoretical and experimental approach to physics employed by the “scary smart” faculty. It did not matter to him that few of his professors were Hispanic. His focus was on the coursework.
“My friends and I spent almost every waking moment solving problems and thinking about what the professors taught us in class,” said the associate professor of physics during a telephone interview from his office at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, about 60 miles north of Springfield. “We were the geeks, but it was fun.”
His curiosity about physics in general overtook his specific interest in astronomy by his junior year. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1988 and completed his master’s in physics two years later. He considered going to UT Austin for his doctorate, but UTEP offered him the chance to create and operate his own lab with new equipment.
“If I went to UT, I would have been at the bottom of the totem pole,” Lozano said. “At UTEP, I would be in charge of the lab from the ground up. It was going to be my baby.”
He designed, assembled and tested every piece of equipment, and produced research that spawned seven published papers. He earned his doctoral degree in 1998 in materials science and engineering. Lozano continues to study surface science that uses ultra high vacuum systems.
It was during his third year of postdoctoral work at UT Austin that he decided to pursue a career in academia that he had been part of since 1989 when he was a graduate assistant in a UTEP astronomy lab. Around the same time, his former UTEP dissertation chair, Jim Craig, Ph.D., who was working at Bradley, alerted him to a tenure-track job in his department. Lozano said he liked the campus’ 12:1 student to faculty ratio. He was hired in 2002 and made tenure four years later.
He has noticed more Hispanics and other minorities in his classes in recent years, and he appreciates that some perceive him as a role model. Many of the undergraduates participate in the department’s research, like at UTEP, and help with the publications and presentations. He estimated that about 50 percent of his students go on to graduate schools around the country.
He advises those who tell him they want to become physics professors to work hard, keep their options open, “and make damn sure you know the material.”