In this week’s Knights Do That episode, we speak with Cyndia Muñiz ’13EdD, director of HSI culture and partnerships at the University of Central Florida. She shares how her work strengthens the sense of belonging for the Latino community, how UCF continues to uphold its HSI designation serving students, faculty and staff, and how her education as a first-generation student herself plays a role in her work.

Produced by UCF, the podcast highlights students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni who do incredible things on campus, in the community and around the globe.

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Cyndia Muñiz: I represent this large community. It’s important that I speak up in support of that community that is very large in size, but often, unfortunately I feel is still overlooked in many spaces. And so I want to continue doing what I can professionally and personally to represent the excellence that is within Hispanic, Latino people. We contribute in so many ways to this country, whether it be through military, economics, here at UCF, as our faculty, as everyone here, there’s so much that we contribute. And so we want to continue opening doors, providing resources and maintaining that cultural pride.

Alex Cumming: Buenos días, Knight Nation. In this episode, I had the pleasure of speaking with Cyndia Muñiz, the director of HSI culture and partnerships at the University of Central Florida. Cyndia shares how her work strengthens the sense of belonging for the Latino community; how UCF continues to uphold its HSI designation, serving students, faculty, and staff; and how her education as a first-generation student herself plays a role in her work. ¡Vamos Knights! Let’s get into the conversation.

Well, Cyndia, you’ve worked at UCF for several years now, but you also earned your doctorate of education here. As somebody who was a Latina student at UCF, what was your experience like and how did that inspire you?

Cyndia Muñiz: Yes. Well, being a doctoral student can be very challenging no matter where you are. So it’s important that you build a community of people that really want you to succeed. I was fortunate here at UCF that I had a community of people like Michael Aldarondo-Jeffries who oversees academic advancement programs, and Dr. Jennifer Parham ’01 ’04MA ’05MA ’14EdD in Graduate Studies and Dr. Fernando Rivera in sociology and Dr. Rosa Rosa Cintrón-Delgado who retired, but served as my major professor in the higher education and policy studies program. They were my familia, my support system, my village on campus and supported me through my doctoral studies. The community that I gained through the McNair Scholars Program and the Summer Mentoring Fellowship program and the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program, they all made quite the difference, right, from my experience as a doctoral student here. So it does, and it did, and it does continue to inspire my work here.

Alex Cumming: Cyndia, and my mother also got her doctorate of education here at UCF. And she’s expressed to me just, how important that cohort is — to have those people that, you can talk with, you can, bounce things off of, and they’re your support group, like you said.

I mean, it, it takes a village just to raise one spirit. And I mean, for her case, I can’t imagine what it’d be like just to fly solo in that situation without being able to check in with other people.

Cyndia Muñiz: That’s right. That’s right.

Alex Cumming: So your experience at UCF as a Latina student, what inspired you to take your experiences from UCF into what you do now, your profession?

Cyndia Muñiz: I have always been interested and have always dedicated my time to the Latino experience in higher education. I mean, this goes back to like high school. I had an experience with my guidance counselor, who unfortunately was a really nice, really great person. We got along really great, but when it came time to applying for college, she indicated to me that the university that I was interested in attending was a reach school for me. And that I perhaps I should have tried to pursue the community college route and get a job. And so I wanted to go to Binghamton University where I ultimately graduated from. That moment, that experience really inspired me to do what I can to go the farthest that I could go, as far as my studies were concerned.

And then to be a positive role model and to inspire and motivate our Latino students to do what they can to go to the college that they want to go to and to ultimately to live out their full potential. So that was what I think was the springboard for my interest in wanting to write about Latinos in higher education — so all of my papers, all of my projects were on Latino students and some type, some issue, some interests that had to do with this community, with my community.

Alex Cumming: That you’re building, like we spoke about what the doctorate program, you’re building a village, you’re building a community, like you said for the students to come together, to work together, to inspire, to have that village, to raise the spirit.

In 2019, we know that UCF was designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. What does that mean for our Latinx students, faculty and staff?

Cyndia Muñiz: Yes. It means several things. It means several things and not only for our Latino community, but for all of our Knights.

First it recognizes that our Latino/Latina/Latinx students represent a critical mass of UCF’s student body, and that we need to lean on the cultural knowledge and the expertise of our Latino faculty and staff to ensure that we’re serving that population with intentionality. And then there are additional funding sources that at the federal level that can strengthen our ability to do that.

Alex Cumming: I think one of the most beautiful things about UCF and I’ve always held this to be true, is the diversity here, is that there’s so many cultures coming together. That if you take a random sample size of 10 students, there’s no way that they all have the same background, the same ideology, the same heritage. And that’s beautiful that you know, you come together and you’re working with all these students with so much to gain from them.

Cyndia Muñiz: Absolutely. Yeah.

Alex Cumming: If you’re just stuck in your bubble you’re going to be missing out on a lot.

Cyndia Muñiz: Yeah, it is. It is beautiful. And what I love to see is both sides of the coin. Right? I love to see the differences that exists amongst all of our populations, our communities but also the overlap, the intersections.Because we all identify in so many different ways. When we’re able to identify those commonalities regardless of our backgrounds, there is something that we all share in some way or another. So that’s great to see, too.

Alex Cumming: I love hearing that. What does UCF being an HSI mean for the faculty?I mean, for the staff, you’d mentioned that there’s more funding for projects.

Cyndia Muñiz: You know, Alex, the example that comes to mind is our first federal grant that we were awarded last year through the National Science Foundation.

The program is called improving undergraduate stem education for HSIs. So I wanted to definitely think the faculty members who led that effort, Dr. Ronald DeMara, Dr. Laurie O. Campbell and Dr. Florencio Eloy Hernández. Their grant is focused on the development of a scalable educational ecosystem for building STEM capacity. And that includes developing culturally relevant curriculum materials to train STEM faculty, graduate, teaching assistants and peer tutors. It’s important work. It really is important work, and it’s going to transform teaching and learning in STEM for sure.

Alex Cumming: What does it mean to be an HSI or Hispanic Serving Institution? And what role did you play in helping UCF receive that designation?

Cyndia Muñiz: HSIs are defined at the federal level as colleges and universities with a total undergraduate Hispanic full-time equivalent student enrollment of 25% or more.

For us at UCF, that happened naturally because of our Central Florida demographics and our admissions efforts, to ensure that our student body mirrors our local service area. So my role was to monitor, educate and prepare for designation. I chaired the HSI task force that was made up of students, faculty and staff, and we familiarized ourselves with eligibility guidelines, funding opportunities and what other HSIs were doing, so that we could prepare to put our best foot forward when the time came. Now, let me be very clear Latino students were already here — were already here when we were officially recognized as an HSI, but what the designation did was shine a light on our student composition. And with that comes the additional responsibilities for the institution.

Alex Cumming: That makes yeah, that makes a lot of sense there. What are some of your proudest moments at UCF when it comes to embracing UCF as a Hispanic Serving Institution?

Cyndia Muñiz: Yes, there are so many, but I’m going to highlight three. So I remember vividly the first time that I saw our  ¡Vamos Knights! shuttle bus on campus. That was one of my very first HSI projects in partnership with communications and marketing when I was an assistant director of Hispanic Serving Initiatives. And I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, like it’s happening.” And because those visual cues they’re important and they help members of our community feel seen.So I was very touched.

Another proud moment was when I presented an HSI overview to our board of trustees in 2018. It was an important step forward because it affirmed the importance of this new, additional institutional identity. So that was definitely a special moment as well that I hold very near and dear to my heart.

And then last, but certainly not least was last year when the 52nd Student Body Senate, when they passed the resolution to acknowledge and celebrate national Hispanic Serving Institutions week UCF. I mean, I had a tear, I certainly shed a tear. My heart was bursting. I was so happy to see that. And I truly appreciate how UCF Knights, of all backgrounds, how they have supported and continue to support our HSI identity.

Alex Cumming: Well, congratulations, those are all terrific things, all three things great to be proud of that. The ¡Vamos Knights!, especially, that’s a piece of brand it’s so ingrained with the UCF branding at this point. I have a friends who, have ¡Vamos Knights! shirts and the shuttles all around — you can’t miss it, you see it on campus. It shows that, and it presents the representation that some people might keep in the back of their mind. But this puts it into the forefront, which is really cool to see.

Cyndia Muñiz: Thank you. I appreciate you saying that. And with, I speak with my colleagues around the country who work at HSIs, and often we talk about what does an HSI look like, feel like, smell, like, like if you’re at an HSI, you should know you’re at an HSI to your point.

So the shirts, the shuttle, we also have a police car also. And so those are visual representations that this community here that we celebrate, we embrace this community here. And that’s what we’re all about here at UCF. So, I’m glad that, you know, people are noticing and that it really helps strengthen sense of belonging for this community.

Alex Cumming: That’s a good way to put it — strengthen a sense of belonging. UCF is not a place that puts any demographic on the back burner. They let you know that, this is what UCF is about is diversity, a melting pot that nobody is going to be relegated to the sidelines; that every group, every identity has skin in the game.

Cyndia Muñiz: That’s right. That’s right.

Alex Cumming: Very proud to go to a school that does that.  Now UCF being an HSI. How does that play into President Cartwright’s goal for UCF to become the world’s leading public metropolitan research university?

Cyndia Muñiz: Absolutely. I’ve mentioned the funding, right? So being an HSI has opened the doors for UCF to apply for additional grant dollars that are dedicated to HSIs or other minority serving institutions and a sizeable portion of those additional funds can help support faculty research. And recently, in addition to that, we also joined the R1 HSI consortium.

So essentially these are the 16, maybe 17 now, 17 institutions that are Carnegie classified as R1 or very high research activity and have agreed to collaborate, to strengthen our research capabilities. So being an HSI without a doubt is a key component to realizing President Cartwright’s goal to be the world’s leading public metropolitan research university.

Alex Cumming: That’s so cool to hear that all this focus is being put into the right places. It’s reassuring to know that instead of just having these marketing campaigns that could be seen as just something at face value that there’s actual behind the scenes work and genuine care, trust, money being put into these efforts to show that it’s not just — they’re putting their money where their mouth. Literally and metaphorically that it’s not just, you know, we got the ¡Vamos Knights! bus. Okay. It’s going deeper than that. And it’s showing that there’s compassion being put into the project.

Cyndia Muñiz: Yes. Yes. There is a lot of work happening behind the scenes. And I wish you could see — I have like my dream, right? My 101 things of what I would love to see for HSI. So I’m working through my list slowly with the support, of course, of our campus partners and such. And so, and looking at every aspect of this. So my role, I work very closely with our senior leadership to make meaning of what kind of HSI do we want to be?

And how does that play out in our day-to-day in our respective spaces, across divisions, across academic colleges, if everyone does one thing, right, we can go so far, much more, quickly. And so. What does this mean for your areas? What does it mean in the classroom? What does it mean for student activities? What does it mean in our local community? As far as outreach is concerned, for marketing, for everything that we do. It’s fun to have those conversations because I learned so much in that process. So when I’m speaking to colleagues across the institution and we brainstorm together, what contribution they can make to our HSI identity.

Alex Cumming: HSI identity. I liked the sound of that. With that 101 list you’re talking about, anything you want to share from that? Any goals, dreams you want to put out on the podcast?

Cyndia Muñiz: No. Certainly, absolutely. I kid around. 101, I mean, so many things with regard to, as we look at our overarching goals for the institution and we were already doing so much great work. We have great programs on campus. We have great people. And I mentioned some of those people at the beginning of today’s podcast, because they made all the difference for my experience here on campus. And so how do we scale? Right. We often talk about that. How do we scale the great work that we’re doing? And so we want to see more Latinos engage with high-impact practices, doing more undergraduate research, securing internship placements. We want to make sure that faculty have the tools necessary to serve this population and serve other populations in intentional, culturally responsive equity minded ways. And that all takes resources of course, in time and dedication. So there are a lot of things. Those are just a few examples.

There’s a long list of opportunities to help strengthen the experience for our students and get them prepared for whatever’s next for them.

Alex Cumming: Strengthen the experience. It’s a great way to put it. With the federal funding that’s been coming in. How does that work to improve the educational programs for Hispanic and lower income students?

Cyndia Muñiz: There are many federal funding opportunities that help strengthen student success initiatives. And it’s up to us to define what that is. Every institution will define what their needs are and what their vision is for any particular student success initiative.

But what I’ll highlight, too, is that we have national partners that offer lots of scholarship opportunities and internship opportunities for students. Many of those opportunities are in fact designed to support Latino students, but there are others that are open to all students, regardless of their background, who are enrolled at an HSI or another minority serving institution.

All of those opportunities help strengthen and help us be intentional in serving Latino students and also sharing the love as they say, with all of our students.

Alex Cumming: One thing I’ve always wanted to express and I’ve been able to with the podcast is the importance of mentorship. And earlier in the episode, we spoke about having a group, having people that you can come to, that you can bounce ideas off of.And that you can look up to who may be in a position that you want to be in, and you can see somebody who represents you in a position that you’re interested in achieving. And I think that’s very important — All identities to see to have mentorship, to have teamwork and collaboration.

Cyndia Muñiz: And mentorship is critical. Mentorship is critical. We all need someone to show us the ropes. Sometimes those individuals look like us and that’s important. Sometimes they don’t, but to have someone there that believes in you and your potential, and, that helps with academic self-concept and a lot of the time that’s what our students need.

They just need to believe in themselves. And not get in their own way. And if someone helps them see that potential, someone helps them see that you can totally do this, here are the resources, here’s the program, go talk to this person that will make all the difference. And I mean, the sky is the limit

Alex Cumming: Getting in your own way — that I think that affects all of us.Sometimes you’re your own worst enemy. It happens.

Now we talk a lot about the social mobility and creating access for students who may not otherwise have had an opportunity to pursue higher education. How does this play a role in UCF being an HSI?

Cyndia Muñiz: Oh, yeah. Latinos, we value education. But we may not always know how to navigate or how to understand the inner workings of higher education.

So some of us, we may have family members that went to college in Latin America. But aren’t familiar with policies here or the structure of the university here. And then many of our Latino students are also first generation in college students. So they’re the first ones in their family to go to college and they’re learning things on their own.

They’re navigating and figuring it out along the way. So it’s up to us to provide that roadmap for our students to make sure that they have all the information that they need to make the most of all those opportunities that will help them get to where they want to go. And that has everything to do with social mobility and really seeing the big picture and generational change for your family. It’s a big, I’m a first generation student myself. My mother has a fourth grade education. My father has a seventh grade education. One of the reasons why I, if not the reason, why I decided to take it all the way and earn my doctorate degree, because I wanted them to hear people refer to me as Doctora Morales — that was, that meant everything to them.

The way in which I was able to do that, it was not just for me. It was for my family, for my parents, especially for Puerto Rico, proud Puerto Rican for Brooklyn, New York, I always am very proud to be a Brooklyn Boricua. And it  has such an impact. And I share what I’ve learned and I remove barriers and I try to position those around me for success, whether it be my students here at UCF or my cousins — whoever it is, but I just try to share the knowledge, the wisdom and the pain, right. Some of the pain along the way, a lot of the pain but hey, I don’t share the pain.

But I just help them get to where they can to the best of my ability, because it’s important. And so many people did that for me.

Alex Cumming: Congratulations.. Those are all such terrific things. And in your situation that speaks to the mentorship to show that it’s possible to say somebody to speak with, somebody to have a direct resource, that they can have a one-on-one and say, is what I’m experiencing. And to be a guiding light.

Cyndia Muñiz: Oh, I like that. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.

Alex Cumming: Why is it important for everybody at UCF to actively support our campus culture as an HSI?

Cyndia Muñiz: So we want to be a national model for inclusive excellence, right? Let’s stop there.

We can do it. We, UCF is known for many great things and being a model of inclusive excellence is definitely something that we want to be. So I’ll start there and I’ll also say that, again, this is a sizable portion Latinos/Latinas/ Latinx/Hispanic/Latin American — all of the wonderful terms that we use to describe our community. We are a sizeable portion of the UCF student body and we want these students to feel seen, to feel heard, to have a positive experience. We want that for all of our students.

And in this case, based on today’s conversation, we’re talking about Latino students. That does not mean that stops us from doing other things in support of other communities.

So it’s important that we take the time and dedicate the resources to support this community and every community on our campus because that’s who we are. And so today is my turn. Tomorrow is your turn. And that’s okay. And we keep it going and we keep it going. We charge on as they say.

Alex Cumming: Very true. We do charge on. Snaps. I give that props. How fantastic. I want to run through a brick wall. That’s so cool.

I love it. Everything you said is just so true. UCF represents. UCF doesn’t hide away. It doesn’t put in a corner. It doesn’t tell anybody, no. Lets them be themselves.

Cyndia Muñiz: And let me just also add that I love to encourage everyone, like my colleagues, my students, I love to encourage everyone to embrace a mindset of “and.”  It’s and UCF we’re known for this and it’s not, but, or right? It’s and. There’s so much that we can do. I mean, the world is at our fingertips. Right?

Alex Cumming: I love that, that “and” representation, I have an improv background, so “yes, and” is so important to me. And with and, I mean, that goes to show how UCF is growing, and have this growth mindset to be the world’s No. 1 for all this “and” is like, there’s so much happening here. And the growth of, if that isn’t here, why don’t we add it? And why don’t we develop this and why don’t we, work to hone our skills in this aspect. So I think that is all very important and I loved your inspiring monologue. I thought that was really good.

Cyndia Muñiz: Oh, thank you. I’m having fun. I’m having fun. Thank you.

Alex Cumming: So, let me ask you these questions. What advice would you give to somebody who wants to be a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion?

Cyndia Muñiz: Yes. Yes. I would say, read. Let’s start there, try to identify some resources that can provide context, kind of help you understand some of the background on whatever issue you’re thinking about that you want to learn more about.

So start by reading. Ask questions. I know that’s hard to do sometimes. Depending on who’s in the room or what the topic is, but pay attention. Listen. Ask questions and that can be in a group setting, or it can be on a one-on-one maybe, if you’re not comfortable, maybe pull somebody over after a meeting, or if there’s something and you say, “Hey, I was really curious about this. I want to learn more.” Be engaged, listen, read and believe people. Believe when they share, when they’re vulnerable and they’re sharing something or they’re upset about something or they’re concerned about something, believe them.

There’s a reason why anyone is saying a particular thing or is feeling a certain way. So let’s honor that, even if we don’t agree with it, or it sparks some concern on our end, we can just kind of sit with it for a little bit and turn to wonder. When I’m in a tough situation and this may be some of that advice, right? If you want to be a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion, I always ask folks to turn to wonder — like, I wonder what led to that question, or I wonder what led to that outburst or I wonder what led to those tears, or I wonder what leads to that pride? Like why are they so proud? Like it doesn’t always have to be a negative thing. It can also be very positive. So turn to wonder and that curiosity we’ll help you kind of navigate and learn more and be a better version of yourself, of ourselves.

Alex Cumming: Wonder, keeping an open mind, not closing off what you think you can learn from somebody. I think that’s so important to emphasize stories that you might not know, to emphasize hearing out people that you might not see every single day, to hear stories that you might not be familiar with.

To not feel closed off when you do encounter some resistance, when you do encounter, some of that might make you a little uncomfortable it’s so important to be open, to learning, to changing, to growing. To the and mindset we were talking about.

We love the and.  That was lovely.

Now what’s one thing that you’re still hoping to do on both a personal level and here at the University of Central Florida.

Cyndia Muñiz: This is a hard one. So many things on a personal level, I want to continue growing and learning and doing what I can to help others.

It doesn’t stop. There’s so much work to do. And I just want to give, I want to be my best self and help as many people as I can. I want my family to be proud. Every single day I look at my parents there. I have a picture of them in my office. And it’s kind of facing me as I sit in front of my computer, that their picture faces me and I like to kid around and say they’re watching me. They’re watching me. And it’s true because every decision that I make, everything that I do, I want them to be proud. I want them to be proud.

So I’m always looking for opportunities to grow and to learn. And I may not have something specific to share with you, but it’s very important for me to do more on behalf of my community. I recognize that I have a responsibility and this is both personal and professional. Five in 1,000 Latinos earn a doctoral degree in the country, those that’s how it works out. So it’s a responsibility. Like I honestly believe that it is my responsibility to ask the hard questions to push to make the way for Latinas like me for, again, for all of our students.

As a Latina, I know what I represent, and I represent this large community that it’s important that I speak up in support of that community that is very large in size, but often, unfortunately I feel is still overlooked in many spaces. And so we need to continue to think about, I want to continue doing what I can professionally and personally to represent the excellence that is within Hispanic, Latino people.

We contribute in so many ways to this country, whether it be through military, whether it be through economics, here at UCF, as our faculty as everyone here, there’s so much that we contribute. We want to continue opening doors and providing resources and maintaining that cultural pride.

This is really important for me because as I respect and navigate our workspace, professionalism, etc. I still hang on to who I am. That is why I will walk into any room and say “Buenos días” and often I’ll get a smile and other times it’s a perplexed look, but that’s okay. That’s okay.

So those are some of the subtleties the little ways that I try to ensure that Latinos are visible and that they’re respected in various spaces for all of the incredible things that we have the potential to do.

Alex Cumming: Congratulations on all the great work that you’ve been able to accomplish and career you’ve had. Do you believe there’s anything else that we failed to ask or anything else you want to share?

Cyndia Muñiz:  I’m so excited about our new Vamos Knights fund that we launched last week. For those who may not be aware, one of our 2018 alums Gonzalo Sauri ’18 partnered with his employer, Accenture, to lead a giving campaign in support of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic Serving Institutions.

Gonzalo, was while he was at UCF, he was the president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Peruvian Student Association. And now he leads the Hispanic American Employee Resource group for Accenture. And he wanted to give back to UCF in a meaningful way because of the positive experience that he had here. The Vamos Knights fund is going to support scholarships and fellowships, help students with internships, support, and also help in providing resources for faculty to better serve students through professional learning opportunities and seed grants for HSI research projects.

So I would encourage everyone if you haven’t done so already check out the story that was published on UCF Today on September 9, it really is an inspiring story. And it’s such an important cause.

Alex Cumming: Before we sign off, could you do myself a favor?

Could you tell me how to say, “Knights Do That” in Spanish?

Cyndia Muñiz: Oh, Knights Do That? “Knights hacen eso.”

Alex Cumming: So I say, “Hey Knight Nation. Welcome to the Knights hacen eso podcast.

Cyndia Muñiz: That’s right.

Alex Cumming: I got it? Thank you. Thank you. Well, again, I want to say thank you so, so much for being here. I loved getting to chat with you and to hear more about the beautiful diversity that our campus has and people like yourself who were helping to champion it.

Cyndia Muñiz: Muchas gracias, Alex, y¡Vamos Knights!

Alex Cumming: Hey, thanks for listening. See you on the next episode of Knights Do That where I’ll speak with Dr. Annette Khaled from UCF’s College of Medicine. She’s the head of the division of cancer research and does incredibly important work in the field of breast cancer research.

If you’re doing something cool, whether that’s at UCF or somewhere you took UCF that we should know about, send us an email at [email protected], and maybe we’ll see you on an episode in the future. Go Knights and Charge On!