Ernie Chavez, a professor and former chair in the Department of Psychology at Colorado State University, has dedicated his professional and personal life to serving historically minoritized students and supporting their success.
“My legacy is people,” he said. “The people who are out there doing the work.”
Chavez’s story is one of perseverance, compassion, and commitment to giving back.
Born in a small town in New Mexico that was segregated by the railroad tracks, with a white side and a Mexican side. He is a first-generation college student.
“In 1976, there were 100 — and I was one of them — 100 Latino / Latina Ph.D. psychologists in the United States,” he said. “That’s always been a driving force in the kinds of things I’m interested in.”
In his time as a researcher, teacher and professional, Chavez has committed himself to giving back to students like him, particularly those going into STEM fields.
“I know how hard it is,” he said. “I had to work all through college. I had to live with my grandparents. I couldn’t live in the dorms because I couldn’t afford it. It was either work through school and live with family, or don’t go.”
Chavez’s passion for supporting systemically marginalized students has infused into his research, his teaching and his stewardship.
“I feel for those kids navigating a system that wasn’t made for them,” he said. “I am them, and they are me. If I don’t try to change things for them, who will?”
Before becoming a professor, Chavez’s research focused on the correlation between drop-out rates among Latino/a students and drug use. When he was conducting this research the dropout rate was as high as 50%.
He tracked students over a six-year period and found that the most influential factors in dropout rates were disenfranchisement from academia and the language barrier.
Spanish speaking students coming into English-speaking schools might have had a successful academic growth curve, but the language barrier meant that their academic performance was still measurably lower than English-speaking students. This barrier caused many students to leave school before graduation.
Connection with school and a social support network were also critical needs to increase retention. Students did best when they were able to form an academic identity and view themselves as smart and capable. A support network was critical in developing this identity.
This research foundation was key to Chavez’s shift into teaching and supporting students at CSU.
“Those same things that make students successful in high school can make them successful in college,” he said.
At CSU, Chavez has devoted his time to increasing retention and success in historically marginalized populations in STEM.
Chavez decided to start teaching on recommendation from a supervisor about 46 years ago.
“They said, ‘If you go out in the community and do the work, there’s one of you doing the work. If you go instead and train five people, you’ve multiplied your effect by five times,’” said Chavez. “Well, I’ve graduated 50 Ph.D.s and all of them do some kind of diversity work and 25 have been students of color. So, they were right, I’ve multiplied my impact.
What I tell students now is that I wouldn’t trade what I do for anything,” he said.
Chavez’s commitment to his students is well known in the Department of Psychology.
“In addition to being very knowledgeable, Ernie is a compassionate, encouraging teacher,” said Karla Gingerich, a professor in psychology and long-time colleague of Chavez’s. “He has spent countless hours talking with students over the years, listening and empathizing, problem-solving, and mentoring.”
Deana Davalos, who was a doctoral student of Chavez’s and is now a faculty member alongside him, agreed.
“I have had the opportunity to see Ernie as an advisor and as a colleague,” she said. “His commitment to representing the underserved and underrepresented has been apparent across his roles as teacher, advisor and colleague. Ernie is a role model and has opened the door to so many undergraduates who had not seen someone like them make it through graduate school and succeeding in academia. He has always gone above and beyond to promote success in his students and his colleagues, particularly those who may need additional support and mentoring.”
Chavez said that it’s important to have diverse coders, scientists and engineers because microaggressions can be built into the way things are designed.
“There’s inequity implicitly built into the algorithms,” he said. “If there’s unconscious bias in the designer, it’ll go into what they create.”
In order to build a diverse community in STEM, retention of students holding marginalized identities is essential. Chavez has dedicated his career to that goal.
In addition to his work in the Department of Psychology, he teaches a seminar for the Key Communities at CSU; is on the leadership team and advisory board for the Colorado Wyoming Alliance for Minority Participation; played a key role in the development of the Tri-Ethnic Center at CSU; and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences Northern Colorado Bridges to Baccalaureate Program.
“All of these programs have provided critical opportunities for students who have often been overlooked and underserved and critical research in terms of how best to focus on the needs of these populations on a local level and societal level,” said Davalos.
“My perception of Ernie is that his desire to serve students of color and/or students with marginalized identities is ingrained in his identity,” she said. “Since I met him 26 years ago, it has been his mission to promote student success and inclusion for students who may have fallen through the cracks or may not have had the same opportunities to prepare them for college or graduate school.”
Chavez is also focusing energy on recognizing his own internalized prejudices and weeding them out. This effort and long-term commitment to equity is present in his teaching, in his relationships with students and faculty, and in the legacy that he is leaving behind.
“Ernie has done so much,” said Gingerich. “He’s had so many grants, been a successful researcher and teacher, and mentored countless students to graduation. But I think the big story is how he connects so genuinely with his students, hearing them, relating to them, sharing the stories of his own uphill battles, and ultimately, inspiring and supporting them through their own educational journeys.”