New Latina dean hopes to help the University of Utah in efforts to become Hispanic serving institution

Oct 3, 2022, 6:38 PM | Updated: 7:04 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — One of Utah’s largest universities has plans to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, the first of its kind here in the Beehive State.

Martell Teasley serves as the interim senior vice president of academics for the University of Utah and is at the forefront of the university’s efforts.

“We’re mindful of the changing demographic landscape of Utah–we welcome that, and we have open doors,” Teasley said.

To become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), the university must have at least 25 percent of its full-time undergraduate enrollment be Hispanic students.

The enrollment for Hispanic students has reached 15% at the U of U, and Teasley said they expect that to increase in the next four to five years.

“We’ve got some work to do to get there, but that is something we continuously pay attention to,” Teasley said.

According to the Utah State Board of Education, around 18 percent of enrolled K-12 students across the state are Hispanic. Teasley said he hopes these students will consider continuing their education at the University of Utah, and they’re preparing for that.

“That will mean actually having more Latinx teachers in the classroom, and many of them that can speak both Spanish as well as English,” Teasley said.

As a part of their efforts, the University of Utah hired a new dean. Michelle Camacho is the first Latina Dean for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Camacho is a first-generation American. Her story begins with her mother emigrating from Bolivia to Chicago, where Camacho was born.

Not long afterward, Camacho, her mother, and her sister moved in with her grandparents living in California.

“Even though financially, with a single mom and a younger sister, there was always warm food, good music, and joy at my grandparent’s home,” Camacho said.

Camacho’s grandmother taught her to dance, value education, and work hard.

She was just 15 years old when Camacho worked at a donut shop in Orange County.

“It was one of many early jobs that I had as a young girl,” said Camacho. “At a very young age, I started to develop empathy for people who had life circumstances that were much more difficult than what I was seeing.”

That was the beginning of Camacho’s love for social sciences. After graduating high school at the age of 17, Camacho went on to study communications and eventually earned her Ph.D.

“I really thought this would be an opportunity for me,” said Camacho. “If I could go to graduate school, I could one day be a professor, mentor students, teach about community issues, and engage in a more meaningful way with underserved communities.”

It was during this time that Camacho met her husband, the love of her life.

The two connected through their similarities in upbringing – during high school, her husband lived in a friend’s trailer while his parents went through a divorce.

“I felt like in my home, we were always hungry, and so, I carried that resentment for a long time,” said Camacho. “I asked my husband, ‘how can you be so warm and open and loving?’ And he said, ‘I have my life, and we have our family, and we’re doing the best we can.’ That time has passed, and he’s just forgiven.”

Those are just one of the lessons Camacho has learned from her partner in life.

Now, three kids later, Camacho and her husband find themselves in Utah.

Mary Ann Villarreal, the Vice President of the University of Utah Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion team, said her focus has been bringing in faculty like Dean Camacho to help students feel represented.

“When we talk about belonging and inclusivity, where do students see themselves around different parts of campus?” said Villarreal. “Not only in leadership like Dean Camacho but in just everyday visibility.”

One of the most impactful questions Camacho was asked while interviewing with the U of U was if she would be interested in helping the university emerge as an HSI.

“That was one of the questions that opened my heart and made me think this is the kind of place where I can bring the talents, but more importantly, the values that I have spent a lifetime honing in,” said Camacho.

Camacho’s goals include expanding partnerships with Salt Lake City Community College, shortening the time it takes to get a degree in hopes of decreasing student debt, and building up the University of Utah’s vision for a campus in West Valley City.

Camacho hopes within her position, she can empower and support students.

“When you’re first generation, you really think that your kind of in it alone, and what I realized is that everybody does it with a little bit of help,” said Camacho. “It’s in the absence of support that I think that our students struggle.”

The University of Utah also assembled its first Hispanic Serving Task Force as a way to increase inclusion resources.

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New Latina dean hopes to help the University of Utah in efforts to become Hispanic serving institution