Giving Thanks for 'MTV,' a Pillar of Support

April 18, 2016

Maria Teresa Velez with Las Adelitas Arizona award recipients Alexandra Samarron (left) and Paola Miramontes (right) (Photo courtesy of Las Adelitas Arizona)

An advocate and an adelita, Maria Teresa Velez — known fondly as "MTV" — is estimated to have impacted the lives of thousands of students. She died on April 13.

During her tenure at the University of Arizona, Velez took it as her personal duty to carve out space within graduate programs that should have long existed for underserved students — particularly African-American, American Indian and Hispanic students — with priority placed on expanding three essential elements: financial, academic and social supports.

Read more about Velez and her impact at UANews.org: https://uanews.arizona.edu/node/70376

Members of the UA community — students, employees, alumni and others — shared their memories of Velez, whose legacy will live on in programming but also in the lives of graduates and collaborators.

"As I progressed through the challenges of academia, I learned a few things about Dr. Velez as I stayed in close contact with her and the McNair Achievement Program family. In changing us, she also changed our families, our communities, and the lives of students that we teach and mentor. I've come a long way from the shy girl that interviewed with Dr. Velez, but to Dr. Velez, our academic mother, there was no doubt that's where I would end up. I hope she knew how much we loved her. I will continue to work hard to make her proud, but even this is not enough of a thank you for all that she has done for me."

-UA alumna Rebecca Covarrubias, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz

"Maria Teresa called us all to the better angels of our best spirits as a public university and an academy, in bringing us closer to realizing our democratic aims of better serving underserved students in the U.S. and internationally. She was so deeply dedicated to supporting students financially and emotionally in ways that enriched their lives and ours, and facilitated the fulfillment of dreams that she encouraged them to pursue and helped them realize. Her spirit lives on in the students she devoted her life to, and to all of us in the academy who were inspired by and admired her as a wonderful and wonderfully successful warrior for social justice."

-Gary Rhoades, head of the UA Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education

UA alumna Deyanira Nevarez Martinez gifting Velez a plaque after Las Adelitas Arizona established a scholarship in honor of Velez (Photo courtesy of Deyanira Nevarez Martinez)

"Dr. Velez was widely known for her passion in supporting students, whether recruiting them and letting them know they would succeed in grad school even when they didn't think they could, finding financial support for their studies, advising them through their graduate school years, insisting that they finish and graduate, and celebrating their placement and career success. She changed literally thousands of lives, and those who she touched became her extended family — a fine legacy and testament to her influence and impact on the UA."

-UA Provost Andrew Comrie

"I met Dr. Velez while working at the Native American Student Affairs Center and when I returned to the Ph.D. program in the College of Education. I remember she let me know that I could always come to her if I needed assistance. I finally took her up on that offer this past academic year. At first she told me that she didn't have any funding available, but she would look. Then, unexpectedly, I was awarded enough funding to cover my tuition and fees. She came through for me, as she always did for countless others. I'll forever be grateful for her presence, example and commitment to serve underrepresented students in graduate studies."

-UA alumna Natalie Youngbull (Cheyenne and Arapaho; Sioux and Assiniboine)

"As a non-traditional returning student to the University of Arizona in 2001, I was encouraged to apply to McNair and first met Dr. Maria Teresa Velez. Immediately, her energy was evident and how she was genuinely concerned and focused on each of her students. I left a promising career in law enforcement and was also in the process of adopting our son. My wife, Darlene, and I had so much going on, but even a phone call from Maria Teresa always put me back on track. She had a very keen sense of knowing where each one of us, both McNair Scholars, was in our academic endeavors and what she needed to say or do to provide encouragement. I was able to graduate magna cum laude in 2003 and was accepted into my master's program because of her."

-UA alumnus José Sprigg, founder of Kahuna Renovations & Home Repair LLC

"'Thank you to Dr. Maria Teresa Velez for your continued support. You knew I had it in me long before I did.' I wrote this for my dissertation acknowledgment page. She always told me, 'Vamos! Let's go after whatever dreams, projects, opportunities that come our way.' She always listened and was insightful — she read your soul and tapped into what your dreams were, and she knew how to get you where you wanted to be. 'Una mujer fuerte.' I strive to do what she did for so many deserving students. I will deeply miss her." 

-UA alumna Tanisha N. Price-Johnson, executive director of admissions, and a research assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine

Anita Bhappu (left) with Velez (Photo courtesy of Anita Bhappu)

"Dr. Velez (MTV) was a much-loved and respected mentor to scores of minority graduate students at the UA, myself included. She knew each and every one of us personally; she was our guardian angel on campus. Her commitment to us was unconditional, but firmly anchored in pragmatic honesty. She nurtured our budding scholarship and helped us to navigate the UA bureaucracy that so often felt alien and impersonal to us."

-UA alumnus Anita D. Bhappu, associate professor in the Retailing & Consumer Sciences Program and a professor in the Honors College

"I met Dr. Velez at a time when I had just graduated and had no idea how to go any further in my education. I was the only in my family who got that far, and I was a very untraditional student with a very young child. I decided to do meaningful work in the community and volunteer while I tried to figure out next steps. It was during this time that I got to meet Dr. Velez through an acquaintance that I got to know during my volunteer work. After I met Dr. Velez, I knew I had found somebody who could show me the way. She was wise. She told me what program I should go to and who I should talk to when I got there. I followed her instructions exactly, and have since this day."

-Michelle Aguilera, a doctoral student in the UA College of Education's Language, Reading & Culture Program

Las Adelitas Arizona established the Dr. Maria Teresa Velez scholarship in honor of Velez, providing financial support to students pursuing degrees. (Photo courtesy of Las Adelitas Arizona)

"When I met Dr. Velez and shared my struggle to get into graduate school with her, she asked, 'How did I miss you the first time around?,' referring to my time at the UA as an undergraduate between 2004 and 2008. I struggled to complete my degree because I was the first person in my family to go to college, and while I graduated and paved the way for my sister, I barely made it through, so graduate school seemed impossible. She immediately made it her mission to make it happen. She connected me to professors in the planning department and made sure I was on a path to success. She provided moral and financial support for me. It never crossed my mind that I would be pursuing a Ph.D., but after I completed my master’s degree at the UA in 2014, I began looking into Ph.D. program in large part because of her encouragement.”

-UA alumna Deyanira Nevarez Martinez, who is completing her first year as a doctoral student in the planning, policy and design program at the University of California, Irvine

"Maria Teresa Velez was my colleague and my friend for more than 30 years. She was a warrior whose passion and dedication to student access and success continued daily for the rest of her career at the UA. The one thing that superseded this was her love for her family, and especially her children, Mariel and Damien. I learned a lot from her about balancing work and family life, and the importance of always making family a priority."

-Sylvia Mioduski, program manager of Colleges of Letters, Arts and Science internships

"Maria Teresa believed in us from day one, both as a couple and as individuals. She was instrumental in helping us achieve the impossible dream of two tenure-track positions at the UA. We would not be where we are in our careers without her. It's difficult to pinpoint individual impacts because she was always there supporting us: showing up for dinner with a bottle of wine, playing with our son, providing a listening ear and 'consejos.' She mentored us in how to negotiate the politics of the academic empire. She had this innate sixth sense in identifying everyone's potential and unique talents — pushing us to undreamed-of heights. All of us — faculty, students, alumni and staff — felt like one of her chosen ones. We craved to get the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, pushes to succeed, because that is how we knew she cared! We deeply miss 'nuestra grande,' and we honor her legacy by continually striving for the ultimate goal of social, environmental, and health justice. '¡Claro que si se puede!'" 

-Paloma Beamer, associate professor of environmental health sciences in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, and Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice

Maria Teresa Velez was seen as an advocate and an adelita. (Photo courtesy of Karletta Chief)

"Dr. Maria Teresa Velez helped us transition into the UA community in many ways. She definitely had a motherly sense to her approach, where there was never any judgment or hesitation about whether we would accomplish what we came here to do. Both being first-generation college students and navigating the graduate school landscape was a large leap for us. So, for someone of her stature and background to confirm our existence on campus gave us power and belief that graduate school was a place for us. 'Ahehee,' Dr. Velez. You gave us power and we want you to rest in peace knowing that we've got your back."

-UA alumni Chris (Diné and Laguna Pueblo) and Johnny (Diné) Nelson

2015 Ph.D. graduate of higher education Chris Nelson (Diné and Laguna Pueblo) with Olin, a future Wildcat; husband Johnny Nelson, who earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in 2012; and Velez (Photo courtesy of Chris Nelson)

"I want to take this opportunity to speak on behalf of two of my best friends in life, Ricardo Palos and Omar Félix. Life gave me these two friends through a research program that María Teresa created. Along with her many fights for social justice and wonderful work, Velez created connections between the U.S. and Latin America that now are hard to break. Ricardo and Omar — my best friends — and I are a nice 'product' of Velez's work. Maybe she did not mean to change our lives, but here I am, writing on behalf of one successful environmental engineering Ph.D. (Félix), and a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry (Palos). I hope I can honor her legacy through my actions and work. It is amazing how the actions of a successful social justice warrior can impact the lives of young people in many ways, from personal to professional."

-Adrián Arroyo, doctoral candiate and research assistant in the UA Office of Latin American Partnership Initiatives

"I came to the UA in 2005 as many international students — looking for an opportunity to get into graduate school. Doctora Vélez was her title for me, and we always spoke in Spanish mixing our Cuban and Mexican language. In the last years, we spent more time together and one year ago she told me 'estás lista' (you are ready). Since then, she was around but I was doing things by my own.  However, I always asked Doctora Vélez for advice and invited her to activities. One of those days, she asked me: '¿para qué me ocupas?' (Why do you need me?) and I replied, 'Because you are my mentor.' She just smiled and I told her that although she was partially retired, I will be there learning from her until the last day of her journey at the UA. Now I see that this learning journey will be continued until the last day of my life."

-UA alumna Nadia Alvarez Mexia, director of the UA's Office of Latin American Partnership Initiatives

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