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Dr. Maria Teresa Velez Walks On

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On April 13, 2016 the SACNAS community lost, as one colleague described her, “the blazing comet that was” Dr. Maria Teresa Velez.

A life member of SACNAS who served on the SACNAS Board of Directors from 2008 – 2011, Dr. Velez was the Associate Dean of the Graduate College at the University of Arizona (UA) and a mentor to students for more than 30 years.

A Transforming Force

Dr. Andrew Carnie, Dean of the Graduate College at UA called Dr. Velez an irreplaceable fixture at the institution and said she “transformed the graduate enterprise both in terms of promoting student diversity and inclusion and pushing for the highest levels of excellence.”

Under her leadership, Carnie cited that UA has become first in the country graduating Native American PhDs and 8thin graduating Hispanic PhDs outflanked only by minority universities and those that graduate a much larger total number of PhDs. Carnie also noted that Dr. Velez garnered approximately $40 million in extramural funds to recruit and fund graduate students and support diversity. She developed training programs like the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium (UROC) to help prepare and motivate undergraduates to go to graduate school.

A Blessed and Thankful Community

“The Native American community is truly blessed and thankful for Dr. Velez and her dedication and commitment. She left a legacy that will be honored for generations to come,” said Dr. Karletta Chief, SACNAS life member, alumna of the SACNAS Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), and Assistant Professor at UA. Chief recalls that Velez’s door was always open, mentoring her first as a graduate student and then as a junior faculty navigating the tenure process.

Chief says Velez was a fierce advocate for Native American STEM students, “I always remember her supporting the graduate students to go home for healing and ceremonies. When I didn’t get the support from my department as a PhD student, she was there to offer words of encouragement and think of solutions.”

Under Her Wing

Dr. John Augusto, another SLI alumnus, met Velez 19 years ago at his first SACNAS conference. Now Director at the Center for Undergraduate Research at the University of Kansas, Augusto recalls that when he met Velez he was new to his role recruiting graduate students to the university. He said, “It took her five minutes to realize that I did not know one thing about my new job!”

Instead of dismissing him, Velez took Augusto under her wing at the conference and introduced him to her SACNAS network. Beyond the conference, they corresponded and she sent him articles on STEM graduate education. When Augusto was in his own doctorate program, he said that Velez became the unofficial outside member of his dissertation committee. “Her mentoring did not end with my work or dissertation. Various times I shared personal issues I was working through. Each time she was patient and unwavering in her belief in my abilities. She is, and always will be, the essence of why there is a SACNAS.”

A Brilliant Colleague

Colleagues and friends for more than 25 years, Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne, past-President of SACNAS and Regent’s professor of Biology at University of New Mexico feels the loss of Velez keenly. “Maria Teresa’s focus, social scientist background, brilliance, and generosity came together to make University of Arizona one of the top examples of successful mentoring in the country.”

She was unique and inspiring, Werner-Washburne recalled. “Her enthusiasm, constant readiness to take on another challenge, and fearlessness in speaking truth to whatever power she encountered were without equal.”

Continuing the Legacy

With the loss of Dr. Velez, Chief wonders who will fill her shoes. And then she reminds herself, “We all will.”

Augusto echoes this sentiment, “I will continue to honor Dr. Velez by encouraging the people in my life how special you can be when you intently try to do your best each and every day.”

The SACNAS community honors and celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Maria Teresa Velez. Dr. Velez, as you walk in beauty into the next world, know that SACNISTAs everywhere will carry on your work of nurturing, mentoring, and advocating for the next generation of STEM students.

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