For UCLA undergraduate Daniela Cortez Bravo, serving as a student liaison to the campus’s Hispanic-Serving Institution initiative is more than just another job. As a Latina first-generation student from a low-income family, it’s a cause whose goals are very close to her heart.

Encouraged by her parents, Cortez understood early on the value of higher education, but she also discovered how educational experiences can differ vastly for students in the state, across school districts and even at the same institutions. Through her own experiences, and in her role at UCLA, she has learned to combat these inequities through college access and mentorship programs, academic advising, and elevating student voices through student government and organizations.

Now, with UCLA progressing toward becoming a federally certified Hispanic-Serving Institution, Cortez will join campus leaders and national higher education experts in presenting the HSI Visioning Forum: Nurturing Latinx Excellence for the Future of Higher Education on Feb. 22 at the Charles Young Grand Salon. (The half-day event will also be livestreamed on Zoom.)

Designation as an HSI — which requires that 25% of UCLA’s undergraduates identify as Latino and 35% receive Pell Grants — would make the campus eligible for a range of federal funds to bolster educational programs, research training and academic attainment for Latino, low-income and other underrepresented students.

As one of two HSI student liaisons, Cortez, who is in her fourth year as a double major in public affairs and in education and social transformation, works with UCLA’s HSI director Elizabeth Gonzalez to help to ensure that students are engaged and empowered in these efforts and that there are clear lines of communication between the student body and the administrators, staff and faculty working to implement the HSI designation.  

In advance of the Feb. 22 event, Newsroom spoke with Cortez about building community, the importance of UCLA students “taking up space” and helping to mold from the ground up what a UCLA HSI designation can mean, and how people can become a part of collaborative efforts to showcase the richness different communities bring to campus.

Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What has it been like to come to UCLA, and what has stood out most about your experiences so far?

My story starts with the encouragement to pursue higher education from my parents, who made a life-changing decision over 20 years ago and personal sacrifices to bring me opportunities for a better life. I learned to see the education system as my saving grace at a young age. Programs like Breakthrough Silicon Valley, a [Northern California] college access nonprofit, supported my journey since the sixth grade. And along the way, I experienced a strong gravitational pull to communities rooted in social justice and education, even before realizing they would craft my personal mission. One of my first professors at UCLA in the freshman summer program helped me to pinpoint that this magnetism to education had a deeper meaning which has transformed into a launching pad to guide my future work.

What has stood out most about my time at UCLA is learning to navigate the intersectional realities from being a first-generation, Latina student-worker and the process of creating community through shared missions and experiences. The pockets of community that I have found through the Academic Advancement Program, the Undergraduate Students Association Council and HSI have been especially integral to my development as a person and aspiring future scholar. They have empowered me and given me a stronger sense of belonging while being far from home.

Last year, you became a student liaison for UCLA’s HSI initiative. Why did you decide to get involved with the initiative? What does your work entail?

I got involved due to challenging moments that highlighted the importance of transforming institutions through equity-minded frameworks, like those that guide minority-serving institutions. HSI is also an opportunity to impact the community at UCLA and generations of Bruins long after me. More than anything else, it symbolized a space to enact change on a macro and micro level through culturally affirming ways.

My work revolves around devising new ways to create common ground between myself and other students, nurturing compassionate and understanding engagement that is not extractive for either party. I lead the facilitation and design of our HSI Latinx Success Center meetings, the drafting and revisions of the student advisory board model and the uplifting of insights from students in the retention and belonging implementation committee. In addition, I work on outreach to students and student groups and to inform future HSI practices and scholarship through national conference presentations and advocacy in cross-campus shared spaces.

UCLA has been working toward becoming a Hispanic-Serving Institution since 2020. From a student standpoint, why do you think becoming an HSI is important?

UCLA is an ideal candidate for the HSI designation. UCLA is a guest on the land of marginalized communities who have been disadvantaged by societal systems, including those in education. It is a part of Los Angeles County, which has one of the largest Latinx populations in the country and the state’s largest public school system — the LAUSD.

Becoming an HSI would mean UCLA can collaborate with communities who are greatly affected by barriers to higher education and can aid existing efforts — many of which are led by students — to increase access to our university and guarantee a holistically nurturing experience for our prospective and current students.

Can you share updates about the initiative’s progress and what people can do to help?

The initiative is working across all spheres of campus to not only make progress towards becoming an HSI but also to ensure that equitable outcomes for students are not reliant on the designation for us to transform as an institution.

Much of my work is in student engagement and retention. Currently, HSI is continuing to secure permanent sources of funding for the Latinx Success Center. We are working with faculty, staff and students through the retention and belonging implementation committee and the Latinx Success Center Student Collaborative to finalize a proposal for consideration. It is an all-inclusive plan for the center, from its budget model down to the very last detail of how it will operate. Student liaisons are also brainstorming ways to integrate student voices into the design of the center and HSI institutionally, even after the designation and center are acquired.

I encourage folks to get involved. There is a lot of work to do across all branches of this university because when we earn the designation, the whole campus becomes an HSI, and everyone who has been touched by UCLA will share in that mission as well. Ask questions, invite us to your events. And students — please do reach out to us! We want to hear from you, whether it be in our collaborative groups or outside of these spaces. Let’s build community.

Through your experience as student liaison, what is one of the biggest takeaways for the HSI initiative that you’ll carry into the future?

Being a liaison has shown me how to weave together scholarship and practice and how critical that relationship is to build a conscious model of an HSI. Being a part of this emergent phase has clarified the lack of research and investment that has been put into HSIs across all parts of their life cycle and how innovative it still is to include the role of students. This experience has solidified for me the importance of community-engaged practices that are not replicating colonial ideologies through extraction or transactional or one-time engagements in socially constructed or formal spaces. I am finding that institutional research and practices are often most effective when institutions are willing to dismantle power dynamics by creating common spaces that are intentionally shaped by students, thereby giving students a voice — not by responding or taking in information but through co-creation.

What can we look forward to from the HSI Visioning Forum on Feb. 22?

I am really excited about this event, and my colleagues have been putting in a lot of effort to bring this to life. We look forward to bringing in scholars and practitioners from all over to give us their insights on what it means to be an HSI and what UCLA has to look forward to in the future. This event will be a great ground for us to build a network, feel in community and to envision what is next for UCLA on the road to HSI. I am personally excited for the panel, which will feature a student perspective, in addition to the student performance that is being integrated into this event. The campus community, especially our students, should attend this event to learn about the bridging of scholarship and action that makes an HSI, as well as to build, strengthen and share their perspectives on what HSI at UCLA means to them. Let’s come together to envision what could be!