An hour with
Professor Gabriel Sanchez, Political Science, University of New Mexico
This month, as part of our special post-election issue, we visit Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, a man of many hats! Dr. Sanchez is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, director of the Robert Wood Johnson Center for Health Policy at UNM, and principal of Latino Decisions, pioneering specialists in understanding Latino political opinion.
Dr. Sanchez was born in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and moved around the Southwest quite a bit as a child. He graduated from high school in Albuquerque and majored in political science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. He then went on to get his master’s from the University of Arizona and completed a PhD in American politics, with a special interest in “The Role of Group Consciousness in Latino Political Behavior.”
We asked Dr. Sanchez about his work with minorities in social science graduate work… and we couldn’t help inviting his professional take on the 2016 Presidential Election.
Degrees: How did it all start for you?
Gabriel: I’m the product of the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute (RBSI), a leading American political science diversity program. Students were exposed to graduate-level courses in political science between their junior and senior undergraduate years. This was transformational for me.
Originally, I wanted to be an administrator. My trajectory through graduate school was unique in that I was preparing for two potential careers: as a professor and as a city manager. I interned over the summers at a graduate school, and then UNM offered me a faculty position and made the decision easy for me.
I still teach, but I’m not spending quite as much time in the classroom due to my heavy research load. I am, however, teaching a brand new graduate seminar at UNM, “Race and American Elections.”
D: Besides the 2016 election, what keeps you up at night?
G: These days, where my job includes training PhD students of color, much of my time and energy is spent thinking about our training model. How can I ensure that students are placed in good positions when they graduate? How can we help socialize them to be strong higher education professionals and walk them through the job market?
Every year we graduate about four or five minority PhD students and help them get placed at prestigious institutions like the State University of New York or Stanford. It’s important work. Beyond the academic component, we often have to address things like: how do you get through a math course if your math background is weaker?
Many of our students don’t have family members who’ve ever gone through writing a dissertation, for example. Sometimes they may not even know what a dissertation is. There can be a lack of understanding of the process, combined with economic hardship. We try to help as much as we can. Our fellowship program is generous, but many of our students are supporting not just families, but extended family as well. We try hard to tap into different professional networks for these students.
At the end of the day, they are all dreamers with high aspirations. We strive to help them get around the barriers that could stand in their way.
D: How would you describe UNM and your students?
G: We’re proud that UNM has the highest Hispanic population of any Research 1 institution. We have a very diverse student body, though many come from right here in New Mexico. They are mostly very motivated and hard workers who often just need a little extra push.
It’s unfortunate, but the education system across New Mexico is not in the best shape. We live in a unique state in that, generationally, many of our students’ families have ties to the land going right back to the 1500s. We have students whose families have been in the same place for seven, eight, or even nine generations.
Family is very important in this part of the country. For many, that means that you don’t leave to get a great job, you stay where you are. But there are only so many jobs available in this area.
UNM is great in that it offers the opportunity to use research to impact real-world outcomes. During an election cycle, for example, I spent a ton of overtime hours addressing media inquiries or doing applied polling to try to inform policy decisions that impact Latino voter turnout. In other fields, there’s a lot of separation between the work you do and the impact you make, but that’s not the case in education.
D: Speaking of voter turnout, how are things looking for this election?
G: Here in New Mexico we have a much smaller foreign-born Hispanic population than neighboring states. That means we have a much smaller barrier to the voting process for Latino voters. In 2004, this was a key battleground state, but that’s no longer the case. We’ll have to see how things turn out.
D: What troubles you about American politics today?
G: The divisiveness and party polarization at the national, congress, and state level. This distances people from the real issues and directly impacts the public’s impact on voter affairs. They don’t see either candidate as necessarily in touch with their needs.
For example, Latino millennials represent about 46% of eligible US Latino voters. But what’s troubling is that many of them will say that being active on Facebook is more important to the outcome of the election than even voting!
D: What excites you about American politics?
G: The prospect of being able to create social change through the political system. If we have an engaged population, we can create huge reforms and social change. That excites me. I enjoy using my expertise to improve what people are doing and help them get more engaged in the process.
D: What’s been different about this election?
G: There’s been a lack of decorum and professional approach to politics…worse than ever before. I hope this won’t set the stage for what’s normal going forward. Despite what you see on TV, I think the average American doesn’t want to believe this is what politics is all about.
D: What one life lesson do you hope you can teach your students?
G: I spend a lot of my time and energy mentoring students of color. They have my cell number and can reach me any time, but I expect them to provide that same level of care and mentoring to someone who might come to them for help. It’s so important to have role models and add to that multiplier effect.
In other fields, there’s a lot of separation between the work you do and the impact you make, but that’s not the case in education.
D: Speaking of role models… who was/is yours?
G: I was blessed with many. My dissertation advisor, John Garcia, is considered a godfather of Latino politics. He invested heavily in me in graduate school. We still spend a lot of time exchanging email about what’s going on. That kind of relationship will endure.
Another is Chris Garcia, who is similarly influential in Latino politics. He was the first Hispanic president of a major institution (UNM) while I was an assistant professor. Both of them set me up to do what I do today.
D: And finally, what do you do for fun?
G: I have a six-year-old daughter, so most of my time is spent coaching her in soccer. That’s the most important job I have! I want to spend as much time with her as I can.
Beyond that, I’m a sports buff. Give me softball on a 75-degree New Mexico day… you can’t beat it!