History shows that U.S. colleges and universities were not founded on social equality, but rather designed for the elite. It is this historical philosophy that has produced and reproduced “gaps” in the U.S. higher education system and while access has broadened over time, gaps still remain. Several attempts to expand and diversify higher education have been largely focused on the presence of diverse students and inclusion alone. This approach to closing equity gaps often places shortfalls on students and families rather than on institutional practices. Thus we continue to ask, how do we close equity gaps?
Main Panel Speakers
Erin Castro, Ph.D.
Co-Director & Founder, University of Utah Prison Education Project
Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Policy
University of Utah
Dr. Castro is Associate Dean for Access and Community Engagement in the Office of Undergraduate Studies and Associate Professor of Higher Education at the University of Utah. She is Co-Founder and Director of the University of Utah Prison Education Project, an on-site initiative providing college coursework and programming at the Utah State Prison in Draper. A national expert on prison higher education, Dr. Castro’s research seeks to improve policy and practice toward greater equity and access to higher education for currently and formerly incarcerated people. She has consulted with the U.S. Department of Education, served as an advisor for the upcoming Pell grant reinstatement for incarcerated people, and works directly with a handful of states in their efforts to draft policy that improves college-going pathways for incarcerated people.
A widely published scholar, Dr. Castro co-founded the Journal of Higher Education in Prison in 2020 as an executive editor. In 2016 she helped develop and launch the Alliance for Higher Education in Prison, a national non-profit dedicated to advancing the field of higher education. Her work has been published in journals such as Harvard Educational Review and Journal of College Student Development and she routinely teaches and learns inside prisons.
Jennifer Gomez-Chavez, Ed.D.
Vice President for Institutional Engagement
Excelencia in Education
Dr. Jennifer Gomez-Chavez is the Vice President for Institutional Engagement at Excelencia in Education. In her role, she connects higher education institutions to Excelencia’s team, programs, support and resources in order to accelerate Latino student success. She has 30 years of experience working on issues of diversity and equity through her positions with the LULAC National Educational Service Center and the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Formerly, she was the Special Assistant to the Associate Vice Chancellor in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UNM’s Health Sciences Center where she served as Executive Director of the Unidos Project, ENLACE NM Central Region Director, and led Collective Impact Initiatives. Her career has focused on improving retention and completion rates for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Jennifer is a national speaker who empowers individuals to self-advocate on issues related to education and health.
Ashley Finley, Ph.D.
Vice President of Research
Senior Advisor to the President
American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U)
Ashley Finley is the vice president for research and senior advisor to the president at the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). She was previously associate vice president for academic affairs and founding dean of the Dominican Experience at Dominican University of CA and national evaluator for Bringing Theory to Practice. Currently, Dr. Finley oversees AAC&U’s research agenda through the coordination of projects and reports on pressing issues in higher education. She also advises on strategic initiatives to support member campuses. Dr. Finley’s campus engagement focuses on connecting learning, assessment, and equity with campus priorities. Her publications include How College Contributes to Workforce Success; A Comprehensive Approach to Assessment of High-Impact Practices; and “Well-Being: An Essential Outcome for Higher Education.” Finley received a BA from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an MA and PhD, both in sociology, from the University of Iowa.
Clyde Wilson Pickett, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion
University of Pittsburgh
Dr. Clyde Wilson Pickett currently serves as the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Pickett was appointed to this position after a national search in 2020. Prior to his current appointment, Dr. Pickett served as Chief Diversity Officer for Minnesota State and before that he served as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Inclusion at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) in Pittsburgh, PA.
Dr. Pickett completed his B.S. degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Kentucky and his M. Ed in Adult and Higher Education Leadership with an emphasis in Counseling and Multiculturalism from Morehead State University. He completed his doctoral study at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education with a focus on Language, Literacy, and Culture.
Dr. Pickett is recognized as a national leader in advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives and strategy in higher education. He is the founder of two educational consulting firms that specialize in diversity, equity, and inclusion training, strategic planning, program development, management services, and executive leadership development. As a scholar, his work focuses on both institutional support for students of color in higher education and strategic development for equity strategy in organizations. He is the co-author for the book Inclusive Directions: The Role of the Chief Diversity Officer in Community College Leadership.
Breakout Session Facilitators
Regional Program Manager – Utah North
Latinos In Action
Vanessa grew up in the rich cultural environment of Barcelona, Spain. In her familia, food and quality time spent together are number one, so they spent many weekends traveling around Barcelona visiting different towns and experiencing their unique cuisine, customs, and traditions. When she was a young teenager, they had the opportunity to live in Brisbane, Australia for a time. She was immersed in Australia’s melting pot of cultures, where she met peers from all over the world and learned to speak English. These experiences coupled with her education gave her the foundational skills and values she has used to succeed in teaching Latinos In Action (LIA).
After teaching LIA for six years she has a deeper appreciation and passion for what our mission is: empowering our Latino youth to lead and strengthen our community. Her priority has always been to help students learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Nothing brings her more joy than seeing students get out of their comfort zone, making a difference and realizing their individuality and potential. She’s excited to be a part of this organization where culture, leadership, service and education are the essentials in making this program a success.
Regional Program Manager – Utah South
Latinos In Action
Carlos Cornejo was born in San Salvador, El Salvador and immigrated to the U.S. as an adolescent. After graduating from high school in Costa Mesa, California, he was awarded a football scholarship to attend BYU, where he studied Latin American Studies and business. Carlos has 23 years of experience in the diamond industry, developing high pressure/high temperature processing technology as well as serving as his company’s primary contact for diamond merchants throughout the world. His career in the diamond industry has provided opportunities to develop one of his passions-experiencing a variety of cultures and learning from each person and each place he travels to.
Carlos’s other passion is for working with youth in education. Prior to joining Latinos In Action, he worked as an ESL liaison for Nebo School District, assigned to help at-risk students who are English learners. His work with these students and their families, as well as his own experience with immigration and education, is what drives him to help Latino youth and their families achieve success through high school and beyond. He has served actively in his community by attending city council meetings, translating community notices to improve outreach to the Latino community, and coaching youth sports. Carlos shares his passion for education with his wife Joanna, who is a teacher, and together they enjoy celebrating their Salvadoran and Norwegian cultural heritage with their two sons and two daughters. As a family they love to spend time outdoors, travel, and enjoy local food wherever they go.
Keke Fairfax, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Pathology
Director Equity Diversity and Inclusion, Department of Pathology
University of Utah
Keke Fairfax received her Ph.D. from Yale in Microbial Pathogenesis in 2009. Her dissertation work focused on identifying novel fatty acid binding proteins in the human hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum. She completed her post-doctoral training in Schistosoma mansoni immuno-parasitology with Edward Pearce and Gwendalyn Randolph in 2014. Dr. Fairfax began her independent laboratory at Purdue University in 2014 and moved to the University of Utah in 2018. The Fairfax laboratory at the University of Utah broadly focuses on using the helminth parasite Schistosoma mansoni as a tool to understand the relative contributions of schistosome antigen vs IL-4 in inducing host immuno-modulation. Dr. Fairfax has also developed curriculum on the history of racism in science and medicine and anti-racist training for scientists that she currently teaches at the U of U.
Annie Isabel Fukushima, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Division of Ethnic Studies
Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies
Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research
Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, and Associate Professor in the Division of Ethnic Studies, and author of Migrant Crossings: Witnessing Human Trafficking in the US (Stanford University Press, 2019), which examines the experiences and representations of Asian and Latina/o migrants trafficked in the United States into informal economies and service industries.
As the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, her programs have funded nearly 4,000 undergraduate researchers between 2016 and 2021. As the new director of OUR, Dr. Fukushima is committed to diversifying the OUR’s reach, partnerships and researchers. She has a strong record of mentoring diverse students and teaching diverse students
Valeria Lopez, BSW
Central Utah Regional Program Manager
Latinos In Action
Valeria Lopez is a first-generation college student who graduated from Ben Lomond High School and received my undergraduate degree in Social Work from Weber State University. She comes from a strong family of immigrants who has emphasized hard work, education, and a sense of social responsibility. She has held various positions in education including TRIO Mentor, Student Advocate, District Behavior Interventionist, Youth Court Supervisor, and Health/LIA teacher. She believes that the path to success starts with education, and for this reason, she is excited to be part of a team that shares her same passion in empowering Latino youth to lead and strengthen their communities through the pursuit of education.