Guadalupe Salazar shares memories of helping students as director of El Centro
by Joe Giordano
published May 13, 2020
Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography
Lupe Salazar’s roots run deep through Northern Colorado.
During her childhood, Salazar worked alongside her family in the fields not far from Colorado State University, harvesting and transporting sugar beets, potatoes and other crops.
Little did she know as a child that she would one day earn her Ph.D. and play an integral role at CSU, helping thousands achieve their dreams through El Centro — a center dedicated to supporting Latinx students.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
In fact, when Salazar recounted her 30-plus years at CSU and her thoughts on stepping down as El Centro’s director to pursue new university endeavors, she gravitated toward her childhood and her days as a young adult before she ever worked on campus.
It’s because she has seen glimmers of her story over the years through many of her students at El Centro.
“I mention to parents (at graduation) that I feel the same pride that they feel for their children because I know their stories and the struggles that they have had to endure,” she said.
“Lupe is resilient. No matter what life throws at her, she pushes through with faith.”
— Brandy Ortiz, former El Centro program coordinator
The Buckingham neighborhood where Salazar’s family lived is not far from the breweries that helped establish Fort Collins’ reputation as the Napa Valley of craft beer. But the neighborhood northeast of Old Town was vastly different when her family purchased a prefabricated, wood-frame house in the early 1960s.
The area was farmland. Some parts didn’t even have plumbing. And as the daughter of migrant farmers, Salazar was regularly taken out of school along with her nine siblings to help harvest and transport crops across the country.
Salazar visits the Buckingham neighborhood of Fort Collins, which holds many memories from her childhood. Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography
Traveling from Colorado to Texas and Florida, Salazar said she would sometimes sit in the front seat of her father’s truck helping to read the road signs and listening to conversations that she probably shouldn’t have heard at such a young age.
“I remember my father being told, ‘You need to gas up in this area because you’re going to travel through Georgia, and you need to travel at night because you’ll get in trouble with the police officers because they don’t like people of color,’” she said.
When Salazar was in school in Fort Collins, she excelled, making the honor roll. She also was the anchor on the track relay team. But beyond those confines, Salazar said she experienced hatred, being called racial slurs by some of her classmates.
“I would tell the principal and the teachers, and no one seemed to do anything,” she said. “Being called those names and hearing my friends being called those names — I started fighting and getting in trouble.”
Overwhelmed by the age of 15, Salazar decided she was done and dropped out of school. That summer, she got married. Two years later, she had her first child.
University of Northern Colorado
“Ever since I met Lupe, she had a positive impact in my life. I attribute most of my personal and professional growth to her efforts, advice, mentorship and support.”
— Fernando Montelongo, CSU student
By the time Salazar was 23, she was getting divorced, and she needed to provide for her four children.
“The only thing that I was going to be able to give to my children was the gift of education,” she said. “So that’s when I went back to school, and I received my GED at Aims Community College (in Greeley).”
From there, Salazar earned her associate degree at Aims. And thanks to a mentor’s encouragement, she applied and was accepted into the University of Northern Colorado, where she discovered the power of mentorship and support through TRiO, a program that helps college students from underrepresented backgrounds earn their degrees.
Salazar pointed to Ray Romero, then director at UNC’s Center of Human Enrichment, and Rhonda Fields, her work-study supervisor who is now a senator in the Colorado General Assembly, as people who believed in her.
“It wasn’t easy to be going to school, working on a work-study program, also selling Mary Kay (cosmetics) and raising four kids as a single parent,” she said. “My mentors provided me with the confidence I needed to continue.”
“It wasn’t easy to be going to school, working on a work-study program, also selling Mary Kay (cosmetics) and raising four kids as a single parent.”
— Lupe Salazar
Salazar graduated from UNC with two bachelor’s degrees —business administration and Spanish — in front of family that included her parents, grandparents, siblings and children.
“The cap and gown was a symbol of my hard work,” she said. “It was a symbol for my children to see someone who had grown up in poverty, was a migrant field worker, had dropped out of school, was a single parent raising four children, that there were opportunities if we made the right choices.”
Colorado State University
“Lupe’s contributions are many, but her commitment and support of our students in helping them to be successful, connected, and graduate, was at the core of her dedicated service.”
— Blanche Hughes, CSU Vice President for Student Affairs
Salazar remembers the exact day that she started working at CSU: Aug. 15, 1985.
“I was so excited that I had received the position at El Centro,” she said. “I could stop by and see my parents on my way in (from Greeley). Also, I was excited that I was going to provide opportunities for students to continue with their education just like I did.”
Alencia DeAnda-Gregg met Salazar through El Centro during her freshman year in 1992.
Having lost both of her parents by the age of 15, DeAnda-Gregg said Salazar was a mentor, a supporter and a surrogate mother at times.
“I had both of my children while I was in college,” she said. “So during that time, Lupe helped me with a lot of things you would normally lean on your parents for.”
Salazar with students at Colorado State University. Photos courtesy of Lupe Salazar
DeAnda-Gregg said Salazar helped her navigate the university and provided opportunities for her to grow. Salazar even found childcare for her children.
Today, DeAnda-Gregg is an assistant vice president at AT&T in human resources, and she continues Salazar’s spirit of paying it forward. “In my role at AT&T, I purposely mentor and look for young folks who don’t have anybody who’s been in a corporate role before or young, single moms who are balancing their careers,” she said.
Kathy Sisneros, assistant vice president for Student Affairs at CSU, said Salazar’s passion and commitment to supporting Latinx students, families and the community has always been steadfast and one of her enduring qualities.
“Dr. Salazar has supported thousands of students over the past three decades, and she has directly contributed to the success, persistence and a countless number of Latinx students who have graduated from CSU,” she said.
“Lupe has a way of getting into people’s hearts … Her charismatic nature and love for others has no boundaries, and people love her for that.”
— Cristal Dominguez-Vasquez, student
Salazar said she was told long ago that when you start something, you finish it. She applied that mentality to earning her master’s degree and Ph.D. at CSU, and it’s something that she tells her students. It’s also how she has approached her role as director of El Centro.
As Salazar’s time winds down at El Centro and as she prepares for her new role as an adviser to CSU Vice President for Student Affairs Blanche Hughes, she is thinking about the people who helped her over the years — her parents and mentors such as CSU Professor Jim Banning, the late Keith Miser, who served 12 years as vice president for Student Affairs at CSU, and Romero.
“Lupe’s life personifies and emulates a labor of love for education and people,” Romero said when Salazar received the Oliver P. Pennock Distinguished Service Award from CSU in 2018. “She is an asset to the university and community that is demonstrated through her endeavors for others.”
The house in Buckingham where Salazar grew up is gone; so too are the fields where she and her family worked; and soon, Salazar will leave El Centro to pursue new endeavors at CSU.
But something more permanent has grown in its place.
Salazar has cultivated a legacy of perseverance through her students who are fearless in the pursuit of their education and dreams.
“Life happens. Life happens all the time,” Salazar said. “We have setbacks, but we still continue because we know what it takes.”