The Hispanic Faculty/Staff Association (HFSA) is a campus-wide organization that has been making a positive impact on the university through advocacy, education and service. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are spotlighting several HFSA members who are leading efforts to make the university a more inclusive, equitable place for Hispanic/Latino faculty, staff and students. We caught up with Desiree D. Alva to learn more about her experiences in the organization, and how it has provided a community on campus that feels more like home.
Desiree D. Alva
Director of Student Programming and Assessment, Office of Student Affairs
Role: FIESTA Committee Chair
Hometown: San Antonio, Texas
What are the benefits of being an HFSA member?
I remember my first ever meeting five or so years ago. I walked into the room and saw a sea of folks who looked just like me. You don’t know how that feels until you spend most of your time at work in spaces where you are usually the minority. It only got better from there. I started to meet others who worked all over campus and, little by little, the huge campus I had once known started to be scaled down and comfortable. This is something we always encourage our students to do, to scale down the campus by finding their community. HFSA is my community and it is a powerful example of why “affinity groups” are needed at predominantly white campuses like UT.
Do you have any HFSA events coming up this fall that you’re looking forward to the most?
I look forward to all of the HFSA events on campus. Any time that I can step away and engage is a treat for me. Some of my favorite’s are to donate to the John Treviño Jr. Holiday Assistance Program in November to help support university employee families during the holidays. I also look forward to the East Austin Gift Program, in which you can sponsor a child a drop off a gift at Sanchez Elementary School. Both of these programs are examples of how anyone could support both the university community as well as the greater Austin community. If you’re looking for an event to attend in the spring semester, I would recommend FIESTA 2022! Last year, we did a virtual event complete with music and bingo. Everyone who donated to our HFSA Student Scholarship fund received a thank you gift complete with salsa and chips to enjoy during the event. I highly recommend it!
Are you a first-gen college student?
By definition, I am not a first-gen student because my mother went to college and— after years of studying in community colleges and private and public universities— she graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio in 1990 at 46 years old. That said, she had a lot of help along the way. She was a custodian at San Antonio College for years until a faculty member took her under their wing and guided her along introducing her to other mentors. It was a long journey with lots of bumps along the road.
What challenges did you face in college, and how did you overcome them?
When it came time for me to think of college, her encouragement was there, but she didn’t quite know how to guide me. With the help of College Forward and TRIO and other support programs, I made my way through the application process and attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The campus was literally 1,000 miles away from my home, and I was terribly homesick. I experienced culture shock and imposter syndrome since I was the last of six kids and the only one to graduate with a four-year degree. I believe that my strength and courage to pursue college was because of my mom, and my success was due to the many Chicana and Chicano faculty, staff and students I met along the way in Madison, WI. So when I am asked if I am first-gen, I say no, but I can definitely identify with feeling isolated and out of place and not wanting to tell my family when I called home because they couldn’t understand what I was going through or how to support me with the many challenges and struggles that college presented for me.
Could you please share a bit about your cultural heritage?
My grandparents (on both sides of the family) always say that “the border crossed US!” They were often proud to talk about how they stood their ground and kept traditions but their stories also always had a word of caution to know your surroundings because speaking Spanish would bring unspeakable acts against them. I didn’t grow up knowing any family in Mexico, sadly, and therefore had nobody to visit during the holidays when most of my friends would drive south. I would, however, go with them and loved visiting Mexico even though crossing the border was always unnecessarily scary despite my status as an American citizen.
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? And do you have any favorite family traditions you enjoy celebrating during this time—and all year round?
For me, it is a time to educate myself on the rich history of a very vibrant group. I don’t claim to know everything, so I quite enjoy reading all of the featured “history lessons” and projects that flood my social media. For instance, there is the Voces Oral History Center that partnered with KUT to bring short stories about Latinx folks making an impact. I also enjoy attending all of the events on campus with HFSA, the LBJ School or E&E [University Events & Entertainment], and in Austin, and San Antonio. I especially love talking about the many Latinx folks who have made a difference to my kids. We talk about related topics all year, but this month, it’s also an opportunity for my kids to share their history with their classmates and do projects on Frida and AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), to name a few. As for traditions, we love Day of the Dead in my house.
What challenges have you faced as a Hispanic staff member in higher education? And do you have any advice for colleagues and/or students on how to overcome them?
The challenges I have faced are related to culture. I have worked in various environments in higher education and the campus culture is something you have to “get to know.” In the beginning at UT, I struggled to understand how things worked and who to connect with in a way that I didn’t have to keep my guard up. For me, connecting with people on a deeper level (especially with food) is a way of life and probably due to my Latinx roots. At UT, this was difficult to do at first but, thankfully, I eventually found my community (many thanks to HFSA) and can say that I now feel like UT is home. I absolutely love being a part of HFSA and spending my time connecting with folks across campus on amazing events like FIESTA 2022!
What message would you like to give to your fellow UT faculty and staff members who identify as Hispanic or Latino/a?
I would say that if you haven’t attended a HFSA meeting – go ahead and do it. Your mind, body and soul will thank you for it. Our theme this year is “We are better together – advancing equity,” and there are plenty of ways to get connected in addition to meetings. For instance, we have eight committees to choose from that range from Book & Culture to Staff Equity and Inclusion. Check HFSA out today! I didn’t personally get involved until my second or third year in HFSA, but I do wish I had started earlier!