In her first two years as a Native American and Mexican Indigenous Studies tenure track faculty member at Stan State, Cueponcaxochitl Moreno Sandoval has created a new class in the Ethnic Studies Program, led an Annual Indigenous Peoples Day, earned a National Science Foundation grant to support her collaborative research, published a book on that research, took an active role in the Council for Sustainable Futures and helped usher in the Indigenous Students in Activism Club, which she advises. And she led club members and students in her Indigenous Studies classes in reviving and repurposing a University community garden.
Those achievements reflect only a portion of what earned her one of 25 California State University Faculty Innovation and Leadership Awards, announced today by the CSU Office of the Chancellor.
The first Stan State professor to win the award that was begun in 2018, Moreno Sandoval’s work demonstrates extraordinary leadership to advance student success, particularly in courses or areas with traditionally low success rates or persistent equity gaps — exemplifying the criteria for the award.
“In this season of remarkable institutional transformation, CSU faculty and staff are at the center of innovative thinking in redesigning courses, advancing innovative student support programs, effectively using data to address equity gaps and collaborating beyond their campus boundaries to improve student outcomes,” CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said. “The awardees have demonstrated brilliance, ingenuity and adaptability, and their steadfast commitment to student success is at the very core of the CSU’s educational mission.”
A selection committee comprised of faculty, student representatives from the California State Student Association and staff members from the CSU Office of the Chancellor reviewed hundreds of nominations to identify the awardees.
Awardees receive $5,000, as well as $10,000 allocated to their academic department in support of ongoing innovation and leadership to advance student success at the CSU.
“I’m a little in shock,” said Moreno Sandoval, who was asked to participate in the nomination process, which was initiated by Anthropology Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CAHSS) Sari Antonio-Miller, CAHSS Dean Jim Tuedio and Provost Kimberly Greer.
“I asked Professor Antonio-Miller why I was nominated, and she said, ‘You do a wonderful job of connecting your personal passions, your teaching, your research and your service. You share your experiences with your students on where you’ve traveled, what you’ve learned along the way. You bring it all here so that our students feel like they’ve traveled with you. To pull something off like that requires a lot of creativity and skill,’” Moreno Sandoval said. “To me that’s the art of living. I’ve lived my life like this forever.”
“Forever” being since she was an undergraduate student at Pomona College, with plans of becoming a dentist, and began to ask questions that reflected a growing awareness.
“Why aren’t there more students here who look like me, have the same hair color, eye color and skin color?” wondered Moreno Sandoval, the daughter of Mexican immigrants from the Caxcan Nation of Zacatecas.
Her family roots — grandparents who worked in agriculture fields of Mexico and the Central Valley, and parents who worked them in Mexico before moving to Southern California — took hold. Math and a career as a dentist gave way to Latin American and Chicano studies.
“I chose something that was perceived by many as less prestigious, but something that was going to integrate my mind, my heart, my body, my spirit,” Moreno Sandoval said. “I always ask myself how I’m making choices that build on my ancestors’ life work so that when I die and return to the earth, this work will continue. How do you connect your life with the life before you and the lives that will come after you? The only way that makes sense to me is to integrate all these things together — personal, academic and professional aspects of my life.”
That’s the approach she takes in the classroom, giving students an opportunity to connect to their roots, to the land and to their ancestors.
“I teach them to question their indigenous ancestry in a way most have never done before because the K-12 system rarely teaches Native American indigenous history from a critical perspective and lived experience,” she said. “We don’t exist anymore. We’re all dead. There are museums about us. Sure, colonization has been and continues to be detrimental to Indigenous Nations, but we’re still here, and our ancestral knowledge systems must be preserved and creatively lived in today’s time. By unearthing these ancestral knowledge systems from all over the world, we make a promise to care for the earth and all life in it.”
The opportunity to awaken the pride she wants her students to take in their heritage and use that knowledge to better our world is what motivated Moreno Sandoval to accept the invitation and work through the extensive application process to become a FILA recipient.
“I kept thinking about my students,” she said. “If I can serve as an example of what I want them to imagine as possible for themselves, to be recognized for their work in the community, then going through this process was worth the effort. The recognition also honors my parents. It honors my family who gives me the time and the room to exercise my creative intelligence.”
Her devotion to her students is evident in the way, upon arriving in fall 2018, she began to create a class dedicated to son jarocho, an Afro-Mexican genre of music.
Through grants, she and other ethnic studies faculty arranged to purchase 22 hand-made instruments from Mexico, battled the border patrol to get them to Turlock, and held her first class with 15 students in fall 2019. The semester ended with a fandango at Osborn Elementary School, bringing together multi-generational families to celebrate over music, culture and food with a goal of revitalizing ancestral knowledge systems.
“We, including fellow ethnic studies faculty Xamuel Bañales and Mary Roaf, wanted to find out how learning this genre of music impacted student voice. We also wanted to find out how this genre of music and fandango culture impacted community engagement on campus and beyond,” Moreno Sandoval said.
Although she’s only offered the course twice, and the second class went virtual midway through the semester, she’s gathering data on its impact. Further, she invited students to participate in studying the impact for a prospective book. Four students worked on the project this summer with her, Roaf and Bañales, and the experience has the students contemplating graduate school.
“My husband jokes, ‘aren’t you supposed to have a summer vacation?’” she said.
Moreno Sandoval can’t help it. The role of educator never leaves her, but she said she makes sure to integrate rest and mindfulness to balance life and work.
“I think because of the kind of questions I had when I was in their shoes, and the kind of experiences I had, many students see themselves reflected in me as I see myself reflected in them. That’s a very special connection,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I can connect with every student. It just means many students finally have somebody who resonates with them.”
She asks students to address her as Dr. Cueponcaxochitl because Dr. and Cueponcaxochitl enunciated together uncover a rarity in higher education. She is one of two Native American women faculty at Stan State.
The FILA award money, she said, will go toward professional development and maintaining the musical instruments.
Personally, she has serious ambitions.
“I want to offer my students a better version of me every time I step into the classroom.”