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During her 24 years as director of Chicano Programs at New Mexico State University, Laura Gutierrez-Spencer worked to change perceptions and perspectives.
It was important for Gutierrez-Spencer, who retired June 30, to recognize students’ linguistic and cultural differences and to encourage others to do the same.
“Stop assuming everyone came from a middle-class background,” she said. “At an institution that is based on the values of the Anglo culture, recognize that not all students being served are products of that culture and may find its structure and rules confusing and off-putting.”
For example, Gutierrez-Spencer said she and her staff made a point of not using the word “help” in their work with students.
“I defy you to find that word on our website,” she said. “That was like kryptonite” to students who came from working-class backgrounds that stressed self-reliance.
“That’s a strong value,” Gutierrez-Spencer said.
Instead, Gutierrez-Spencer said she and her staff offered guidance to underrepresented students so they could grasp how NMSU is organized and navigate the many services and programs it offers in a way that recognized their vulnerability and preserved their dignity.
That included connecting some students with the tutors they needed while being conscious of their concern that if you need a tutor, “maybe somebody is going to look at you like, ‘I’m not smart,’” she said.
A student who grew up in the Anglo culture knows “office hours” means the time when an instructor is available to meet with students. But to a freshman from a different culture, it might mean, “Don’t bother me during these hours because I’m busy with office work.”
In Gutierrez-Spencer, students found someone who could explain that “office hours” meant “student hours.”
Many of those served by her office came from poor families and were first-generation college students paying their own way to attend NMSU, Gutierrez-Spencer said. Others were undocumented or struggled with sexuality and identity issues. All wanted to feel a sense of belonging.
Shepherding them through the system required a different approach and a skill set that allowed Gutierrez-Spencer “to see things from their perspective.”
Often, the key was language, she said, taking the time and having the sensitivity to understand how a student thinks and how he or she interacts with reality and makes sense of the world. Closing the gap in the graduation rate for Hispanic students often meant giving them more attention during their first two years at NMSU. By year three, the gap began to disappear, she said.
Gutierrez-Spencer speaks five languages. She is a native of Las Cruces and grew up in Silver City. She attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, for two years before earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder, a master’s degree from NMSU and a Ph.D. (in Latin American Literature) from the University of New Mexico.
After seven years on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Gutierrez-Spencer returned to Las Cruces to lead Chicano Programs in 1996.
At Chicano Programs, she was especially proud of Generaciones, a mother-daughter program for fifth-grade girls and their mothers, and her work with the Danny Villanueva scholarship program. But listening to and working with students – “That’s what I enjoyed the most,” she said.
“To this day, I am grateful NMSU gave me the opportunity to come home and to serve the students of this state,” she said.
Her mother, Maria Gutierrez Spencer, received a national Wonder Woman award, alongside Rosa Parks, in New York City in 1981, as a state historical marker on the NMSU campus recognizes.
In retirement, Laura Gutierrez-Spencer now has time to work on her new project. She is the screenwriter and executive producer for a movie called “Magic Love Dust.”