Gloria Velasquez wanted her 31st and final year as a professor at Cal Poly to be a spiritual one.
To accomplish this, the internationally recognized author and poet began meditating with students in her Spanish and Chicano/a studies classes and created an assignment to promote compassion— a take home quiz where students are to perform an act of kindness.
“I’ve tried to teach students to have compassion,” Velasquez said. “I always ask them, how are you giving back to your community?”
With an act of kindness.
Pay it forward
Velasquez told her students to treat the class like a family, making them work together to spread empathy.
“We emphasize community, so we are a family,” Velasquez said. “We are not competing with each other in the classroom, we work together. I think when you serve and you help others, then you are building compassion and you’re able to feel better about yourself and your own life.”
Velasquez said she was delighted by the responses of her students. She remembered one student who collected sea glass and rocks from the beach, but chose to return the rocks because he said they belonged to Mother Earth. Another student filled someone else’s parking meter that expired, while another forgave a friend whom she had a falling out with.
However, Velasquez said some of her students felt self-conscious that their act of kindness would seem small or insignificant.
“A lot of them said, ‘It was just this small thing that I did,’” Velasquez said. “So I explained to them that it’s not about the size or the quantity. Kindness is unmeasurable because it comes from the heart. You can’t measure love, you can’t measure the love in the heart.”
A spiritual experience
Velasquez’s Navajo and Chicana heritage inspired her to be spiritual in her classes by teaching literature from a spiritual perspective. At the beginning of each quarter, she draws a circle on the board to represent the belief of many Navajos and Mexicans that life is cyclical, meaning life and death are one.
Velasquez began meditating with her students as a way to de-stress from the fast pace of the quarter system and the current political climate.
“Given the current political situation, there’s more fear and stress,” she said. “Meditating and helping others is a way of slowing down and being aware.”
Her students told her that they feel more relaxed and find themselves appreciating life more because they were able to slow down for a moment and reflect.
“I love meditating in class,” communications senior Ashley Lekkerkerk said. “It helps me slow down and realize that life should not be spent stressing out. I want to meditate more outside of class since it has helped me calm down and feel ‘tranquila [calm].’”
Velasquez said she takes pride in being the first Chicana professor on Cal Poly’s campus, back in 1985. She’s also been active in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and United Farm Workers organization.
Velasquez was born to Mexican-American farmworkers amidst the racism and poverty of the 1950s and became the first in her family to attend a university.
She was also a part of political activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles’ “Crusade for Justice” in Denver, Colorado during the 1960s and 1970s.
“We raised hell,” she said.
Velasquez reflected on times during her 31 years teaching Chicano studies when her curriculum was met with racism and backlash from conservative students. While lecturing about Cesar Chavez in the 1980s, she remembers some students making disrespectful remarks and insulting Latino classmates.
In the last five years, Velasquez has noticed more openness in her students.
“You young people— the future— you are becoming more progressive-minded, more open-minded, more aware of diversity and the beauty of diversity,” Velasquez said.
Though Velasquez said she recognizes a diversity problem at Cal Poly, she thinks her presence on campus is a way to combat that.
“There have been very few people of color faculty members here at Cal Poly, but that’s OK because that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never left. I felt I was needed here,” she said.
Velasquez likes to refer to herself as “la tia mama,” or “the aunt mom,” of Cal Poly. Many students, especially Latino/a students, see in her someone who cares about them and someone they can relate to.
“I’ve had students come to my home,” she said. “They’ve brought their aunts and uncles to my home. They’ve even brought their grandparents on occasion, because I tell them that concept of ‘familia.’”
Velasquez said she hopes to use her retirement to keep working on her series of young adult novels, called the “Roosevelt High School Series.” She plans to keep in touch with her students and to continue to inspire compassion and social change.
“My life reflects the pursuit of social justice. Always,” Velasquez said.