Taking Root Across the UC: Expanding Latinx and the Environment to UC Riverside and Beyond

April 5, 2023

Latinxs and the Environment (L&E) at UC Berkeley  was originally an initiative that came to life in 2017 under the direction of Dr. Federico Castillo, PhD, Lecturer at UC Berkeley and Deputy Director of the UCGHI Center for Planetary Health, and Lupe Gallegos-Diaz, MSW, Director of UC Berkeley’s Chicanx/Latinx Student Development Office. Both Dr. Castillo and Ms. Gallegos-Diaz, along with the inaugural cohort of fellows, wanted to create a community for Latinx students at UC Berkeley, a small but growing population. The initiative aimed to provide mentorship, networking opportunities, and support for research and career development for Latinxs students while connecting them to other Latinx students and  faculty in environmental science. It also sought to promote the inclusion of Latinx perspectives in environmental science, which the students and faculty noticed was missing at the time. In the last six years, the program has engaged approximately 200 Latinx graduate and undergraduate students in environmental science-related fields at UC Berkeley.

The initiative has since grown, engaging students and faculty across the University of California system and cultivating a vibrant community of Latinx students and faculty in environmental science. Most recently, the program expanded to UC Riverside under the direction of Dr. Sam Ying PhD, Assistant Professor of Soil Biogeochemistry at UC Riverside and Co-Director of the UCGHI Center for Planetary Health. Dr. Ying credits the Center for Planetary Health for creating the path to establishing L&E at UC Riverside. They first became familiar with Dr. Castillo through the Center for Planetary Health, where they began to discuss the progress of L&E at UC Berkeley. They found that while UC Berkeley had a smaller Latinx student population, UC Riverside, where Dr. Ying is based, has a much stronger Latinx community as it is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI).

From there, the idea of expanding L&E to UC Riverside was developed. Drs. Ying and Castillo’s goal was to create a larger, UC-wide network for Latinx students in environmental science. Dr. Ying, alongside Dr. Emma Wilson, PhD, Associate Dean for Graduate Division, and Dr. Laura McGeehan, PhD, Director of Academic Preparation, Recruitment, and Outreach, joined forces to discuss how to make this goal a reality. The group was awarded through the UC-Hispanic Serving Institution Doctoral Diversity Initiative, which allowed them to formally launch L&E at UC Riverside in the fall of 2022. They have had exciting events, including the program’s seminar series, a student-designed and led series to expose Latinx undergraduate students to understand the effects of environmental drivers on the Latinx community in the US and beyond. The program also recently launched the Latinxs and the Environment Research Fellowship, an 8-week summer research internship designed for undergraduate students committed to advancing Latinx participation and leadership in environmental fields. Applications are due on April 15th, 2023, after which students will be selected to conduct faculty-mentored research and attend professional development workshops.

The current program at UC Riverside is still shaped around the overarching ideology that L&E at UC Berkeley was founded upon. “The absolute priority and central theme is just getting students to know other students who are in environmental work,” says Dr. Ying. From its inception to the present, the highlight of L&E has always been its students. The students are fundamental to the group and provide crucial support in its direction and execution.

One of these students is Daniel Gonzalez II, a fourth-year environmental science major at UC Riverside and a musician from Southern California. Daniel had been involved with L&E at UC Berkeley before its sister branch was launched at his own university, attending the L&E annual symposium at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate panelist. When L&E became a full-fledged program at UC Riverside, Dr. Ying approached Daniel about serving as a co-lead for the program’s seminar series.

“This program [L&E at UC Riverside] is important to me because it feels much bigger than me,” Daniel says. “In terms of the environment itself, we can’t help but notice that the studies being done on areas facing environmental justice issues (like the Coachella Valley) are not being conducted by members of said communities, which happens to be largely Latino.”

Another leader involved in L&E at UC Riverside is Valeria Covarrubias-Santillan, a recent graduate who studied Biology and Dance. Valeria is a Research Assistant in Dr. Ying’s Soil Biogeochemistry lab, and though she graduated before the program launched, she was eager to accept the opportunity to be involved.

“As a first-generation Latina, one of my main motives is to help guide and support those who have yet to reach where I am. I would like to help them avoid the setbacks I encountered during my journey due to ignorance and fear of asking for help. There was a lot of that which I had to overcome and I think it has to do with my cultural background.”

Valeria is not entirely sure where her education and career will take her just yet, but at her core, she knows that she loves her community and her field. “I know I want a healthy environment for my community as well. There are many ways that I can do all that and I am still figuring it out. And that's okay!”

Indeed, it is apparent how compelled these students feel to create progress and ensure that this progress has a positive impact on their communities. According to Dr. Ying, that is what makes her students special and inspiring. “Latinx students and a lot of students from underserved communities have this very strong, passionate drive to bring their education and skills back to their communities.”

Earth Day (April 22, 2023) has never been more relevant than it is today with the looming urgency of the climate crisis. The diligent work of students and scholars who aim to take their education beyond the classroom and their careers brings much needed silver lining and hope for the future in the midst of our environmental plight. The drive, commitment, and intelligence that is demonstrated by the students of L&E elevates their communities, the University of California, and California as a whole.