Jesse Perez started at UCCS as a first-generation college student. Now, he’s the director of the UCCS Excel Languages Center.
“[I] was kind of one of those ones that just never left,” Perez said. “I’ve been a staff member at the university for quite some time in a lot of different roles.”
Though he’s originally from New Mexico, Perez considers Colorado Springs home. When he graduated from college, he thought he wanted to go to law school.
But after realizing his passion for education, he decided to pursue a graduate degree. Now he’s studying education as a doctoral student at University of Colorado, Denver.
Before joining the Excel Languages Center, which aims to “empower student success through collaborative learning, individualized tutoring, leadership development and meaningful dialogues,” Perez served as a program director for the Office of Student Multicultural Affairs (MOSAIC), an all-encompassing cultural center on campus.
“A lot of my work has been collaborating with different [entities] both on campus and off campus to uplift marginalized communities...,” he said.
Making higher education more inclusive and accessible has always been a priority for Perez. UCCS’s MOSAIC Gateway Program supports students who are borderline “on paper” (according to admission criteria like GPA and SAT/ACT scores) — but who show great potential.
When it comes to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts like this one, Perez said, falling into the “deficit mindset” is a common problem that ultimately handicaps the work: emphasizing statistics and disparities, focusing on barriers, and using terms like “vulnerable” and “at risk.”
“But the issue is, when we’re working with folks, the language can risk reinforcing negative stereotypes and perceptions, or communicate the idea that these are inherent characteristics of a person rather than the result of systemic issues,” Perez said.
“One of the things that I’m really proud of is I adjusted and changed the curriculum of this program to be more affirming, and to be more in line with an asset-based framework.”
Perez said “social justice arrogance” is another roadblock in DEI work: “This feeling of, ‘I know all the terminology. If you don’t use the right word, if you don’t approach things the right way, then we’re going to make you feel like most terrible person.’”
Making DEI education and language accessible to people is part of his ongoing mission.
Perez wants to emphasize that DEI work is accessible to everyone, at any level.
“Folks want to be in solidarity with marginalized communities, and they attend rallies, and they change their Facebook picture frame, and all of these things,” he said.
“But what tends to happen is folks will stand in solidarity with these communities in isolation. They’re not talking with others about it. … They’re not finding places to have these kind of conversations.
“So we say that solidarity in isolation lacks accountability. You just have to take the step. And you have to find someone to hold you accountable to this work, no matter how small or big the efforts. Collectively, it makes a difference. And there’s work to be done for everybody. Even if it’s just within your own home.”