Posted on April 27, 2021 by

Among the many winners of the 2021 University Excellence Awards announced on April 20 was Lilliana Saldaña, Ph.D., who earned the President’s Distinguished Diversity Award for her efforts in expanding educational accessibility among the Latinx population of San Antonio. Saldaña is an associate professor and program coordinator for Mexican American Studies as well as the co-director of the MAS Teachers’ Academy. She says her commitment to education began in childhood and was inspired by her mother and grandmother.

“I was raised by these two incredible strong women who taught me the value of education,” she said.

Much of Saldaña’s work has taken place in institutional networks, statewide organizations, and even the state board of education.

“There’ s a lot of different parts of the movement I’ve been involved in,” she said.

Saldaña worked for several years to encourage the state board of education to approve a Mexican American Studies course for Texas high schools. She and her colleagues gained some ground in 2015 when the board approved a so-called “special topics course in social studies,” but their real victory came three years later.

“The approval of the MAS course in 2018…was historic, because it was the first time any state board of education in any state had ever approved of an ethnic studies course for high school students,” Saldaña said. “That course paved the way for other ethnic studies courses as well.”

While her community and institutional involvement made her a prime candidate for this award, Saldaña herself sees things in a different light.

“This has been a collective effort, so it does feel a little awkward being selected for this very distinguished award because I’m not the only one that’s been part of the academy, I’m not the only one that’s been pushing for Mexican American studies,” she said. “I am honored as a professor of Mexican American studies to represent my program and the university in these spaces.”

And when Saldaña describes the push for Mexican American studies as a collective effort, she means it. Even beyond her colleagues of the last seven or eight years, she sees their work as building upon that of activists and educators as far back as the 1920’s.

“I’m thinking Mexican American communities who were opening up their escuelitas , or little schools back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, who were wanting to create their own community schools…that were pretty much funded by the community to ensure that their children were learning about their history, their ethnic history, their ethnic culture, and that they were being educated in their community language,” she said.

Because of this community heritage, Saldaña plans to donate the Distinguished Diversity Award’s $1,000 prize to the MAS Teachers’ Academy.

“In the spirit of collective organizing and community building, I think it’s important to keep supporting this work,” she said.

Although she maintains that her work has been collective, Saldaña is still grateful for the award.

“I appreciate the award because my colleagues nominated me; that’s why it’s so meaningful,” she said.

Ultimately, she hopes that winning this award will lend visibility to the collective’s work and demonstrate the importance of institutional support.

To view the 2021 University Excellence Awards ceremony, visit .

For more information about the Mexican American studies program, visit the Department of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.