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Dr. Mari Castañeda awarded UMass President’s Public Service Award

Dr. Mari Castañeda, associate professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, will be honored on Nov. 19 with the UMass President’s Public Service Award.

Castañeda, who received her Ph.D in communication at the University of California, San Diego, in 2000, has worked extensively to create university and community partnerships that benefit the Latino/a population of Holyoke, Mass. Her work with the Community Outreach Partnership Center and as a faculty advisor for Student Bridges allowed Castañeda to advocate for improvement in education, economic development and housing in the Latino/a community in Holyoke, Mass.

“I feel very honored [to receive this award],” said Castañeda. “Especially to be selected with an amazing group of UMass faculty, who are doing important work in the communities they’re involved with.”

This year’s other honorees include professors David Terkla of UMass Boston, Matthew Roy of UMass Dartmouth, Kay Doyle of UMass Lowell and Linda Sagor of the UMass Medical School.

“As an educator working at a public university, it’s very important for me to connect with communities outside the campus,” said Castañeda. “Especially since UMass Amherst is a resource for all residents of the Commonwealth.”

Castañeda also spoke on her experience being a Latina helping out the Latino/a community of Holyoke, Mass., and her work as a graduate student in which she worked for various student agencies that dealt with border issues and cross-national partnerships.

“My connections are not limited to Latina/o organizations or residents, but it so happens that my expertise and contributions are most valuable to those communities because of my scholarship
and community engagement experience I have from when I used to live in Southern
California,” said Castañeda.

“But yes, as a professor that identifies as a Chicana/Latina, my involvement with Latina/o communities in Holyoke has been very fulfilling since my presence demonstrates that higher education is possible for Latinas,” said Castañeda. “[Latina/os] currently constitute a small percentage of college students, and an even smaller percentage of college faculty, despite the Latino/a demographic across the U.S. being very large.”

According to the Student Bridges website, the Student Bridges program is “a student-initiated outreach program that connects UMass students with local community-based organizations and schools through tutoring-mentoring partnerships, college awareness activities and policy advocacy.” Student Bridges primarily partners with schools and programs in the Holyoke and Springfield, Mass., areas.

“She is pretty much amazing,” said Ben Thompson, a junior philosophy and Spanish major, who is also the undergraduate programmatic coordinator for Student Bridges. “It is great to have a faculty member, such as Mari, spend so much time mentoring us.”

Castañeda will be stepping down from the position of faculty advisor for Student Bridges this year, at which point she will assess her next project involving the Holyoke and Springfield, Mass., communities.

Dr. Castañeda described how her family and experience growing up in a “low-income environment” shaped her choice of career and community advocacy.

“Although I grew up in a low-income environment, my family emphasized learning and were very supportive of my educational pursuits,” said Castañeda. 

“At an early age, I loved and enjoyed school,” said Castañeda. “I pursued every opportunity that would enhance my education. When I was a kid and found out that I could spend the rest of my life in academic study by working as professor, I knew right then and there that this is what I wanted to do as a career.”

“And the fact that it would also allow me the space to intersect research and praxis was even better news,” said Castañeda.

Throughout her early life, Castañeda was influenced by people involved in higher education, including college students that visited her high school.

“In addition to my mom, my aunts are perhaps some of the greatest influences in my life. My Tia Letty and Tia Rosy were both college students when I was growing up, and seeing the impact of their university courses on their lives was really inspiring for me,” said Castañeda. According to Castañeda, her aunts were both Fulbright Scholars.

“My teachers also made connections with local colleges in the area where I grew up. Having college students in the classroom, tutoring students and discussing college also opened a world of possibility that I knew existed, but I hadn’t really discussed with someone close to my age,” said Castañeda.

 “To those college students [who came to my high school], I would say ‘thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to mentor and tutor kids that were often written off because of their socioeconomic class and ethnicity. Your generosity and non-judgment will forever be appreciated,’” said Castañeda.

Dr. Shirley Mietlicki-Floyd, former grant investigator of the Community Outreach Partnership Center [COPC], expressed her agreement with the decision to give Castañeda the Public Service Award.

“Professor Castañeda was a person not only interested in the needs and concerns of the local Holyoke residents but an advocate for them,” said Mietlicki-Floyd. 

“Through our COPC project, [Castañeda] was beneficial in building the capacity of community residents, of facilitating an exchange of college and community people between Puerto Rico and Holyoke and in helping residents express their culture and heritage through a calendar,” said Mietlicki-Floyd. “She was always very willing to offer her time, expertise and varied experiences to the COPC project and the community as well.”

Castañeda also discussed in an interview over e-mail her experience with her students who continue to seek to contribute to their own communities.

“I think it’s important for UMass students to have experiences where they are connecting with off-campus communities, whether those communities are different than them or not,” said Castañeda.

“Based on my experience as a college professor, 90 percent of my former students have repeatedly shared with me that their community engagement experiences were some of the best memories they have about UMass,” said Castañeda.

Bobby Hitt can be reached at rhitt@student.umass.edu.

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