Cohort Spring 2021


Ariela Almeida


Ariela Almeida was born in Quito, Ecuador and grew up in Albuquerque, forming a passion for education and sustainable studies as a way to connect with the community and future. This led her to the institute as she aims to learn and apply her education in a way that promotes sustainable solutions that conserve not only our natural resources but cultural traditions and identities alike. 


Ericka Arias


Ericka graduated from Augustana College (IL) with a BA with majors in Spanish, Education and Religion and a minor in Latin American Studies. She is from the Chicago suburbs area (IL) and moved to Albuquerque during the summer of 2019 to pursue graduate school at UNM. Ericka is working on a dual degree in Latin American Studies, and Community and Regional Planning and hopes to work as a community activist and organizer for Latino communities in the U.S. upon graduation.


Hector Castillo


Hector Daniel Castillo was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and has been raised here in Albuquerque his entire life. He is 18 years old and a senior at South Valley Academy. His first language is Spanish and considers himself part of the Latinx community. Hector's ultimate goal in life is to go to college to get a degree in mechanical engineering and go work in Latin America to help communities in need of modern technology. Some hobbies of his are playing sports with friends and family, taking walks on the acequia which he lives right next to, playing video games, and listening to music. Something that Hector lives by and is motivated from everyday is the law of attraction which states that positive or negative thoughts will bring positive or negative experiences into your life.


Alicia Gallegos


Alicia is an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico majoring in Family and Child Studies and minoring in Native American Studies. Taking pride in her mixed identity as a Pueblo, Chicana, and Dine woman, Alicia strives to give back to the communities that she comes from through her education. Her studies focus on the ways in which colonialism impacts the livelihoods and wellbeing of people of color and identifying ways healing can take place while also being culturally relevant. Alicia’s interest in participating in the Leadership Institute arises from the opportunity to learn from and work with the local community all while also learning about the connectedness of land, water, traditions, and culture.


Sofia Jenkins-Nieto


Sofia Jenkins-Nieto was born in Albuquerque and grew up in Denver, Colorado. Her passion for environmental justice has introduced her to a broad range of experiences as a junior at the University of New Mexico. With a major in Environmental Science and a minor in Sustainability Studies, Sofia has taken advantage of every opportunity possible in order to expand her knowledge so that she can continue to make a positive impact on the world. She believes strongly that Indigenous knowledge in land and water relations should be prioritized and combined with Western science.

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Laura Lewis


Laura (she/her) moved from California to attend the University of New Mexico to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Language. Laura is passionate about environment and food/hunger issues. She believes that part of a healthy community includes having a healthy relationship with our land and water. She also believes the acknowledgment of our histories and cultures can lead to further insight towards contemporary community solutions. Laura is currently serving as a FoodCorps service member at South Valley Preparatory School in Albuquerque. 


Ennedith López


Ennedith López is currently a senior at the University of New Mexico with a double major in International Studies and Spanish and a double minor in Chicana/o/x Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality studies. She currently works as a Peer Leader at the College Assistance Migrant Program at UNM. Born and raised in Albuquerque, Ennedith has found a passion in community and advocacy work, hoping to attend law school soon and work in the non-profit sector. In her free time, she likes to enjoy the outdoors, travel, and spend time with family and friends.


Hannah Naljahih


Hannah Naljahih is a sophomore currently studying Criminology and Psychology at UNM. She plans to further her education in law to represent and protect the diverse communities. She hopes to connect the institute’s methods to better understand policies and rights of the land and the society. Hannah was raised on the Navajo Reservation and is of the Many Goat clan people and born for the Bitterwater clan people and is a decent of the Kiowa tribe of Oklahoma.

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Michelle Perez


Michelle Natalie Perez (her/she) has a passion to serve marginalized communities and groups affected by institutionalized racism in the United States. She believes in actively listening to community member testimonies, opinions, feelings, thoughts, and ideas because she understands that often times “outsiders” make decisions that do not reflect the needs and wants of vulnerable communities. Michelle earned her bachelor’s of science degree in City and Regional Planning at Cal Poly Pomona. She is a first generation college student, now transitioning into UNM’s MCRP Program. Although fairly new to Albuquerque, Michelle feels a connection here similar to her hometown in the East San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. The mountains hug the cities in both places; not as comforting, is seeing the lack of resources in the San Fernando Valley and Southeast Albuquerque, where folks experience financial burdens and face the consequences of gentrification. Michelle yearns to meaningfully engage with Albuquerque for as long as she has the privilege to. Her overall goal while with CESSOS this Spring semester is to learn, contribute, and build leadership skills.

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Maria Aurora Yanez


Aurora considers learning a life-long experience. She was born in Eagle Pass, TX and was raised in Del Rio, TX, thus her early life experiences were connected to the border region - the first language she spoke was Spanish. Aurora graduated from Del Rio High School and subsequently moved to San Marcos, TX to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Spanish. She then went to The Ohio State University and obtained a Master of Arts in Sociology.


Aurora is the oldest of five children and the first in her family to get a college degree. Her parents valued education and, although resources were scarce, encouraged her to pursue a degree. Because seeing how hard her parents worked to provide for the family, she dedicated her professional life to encouraging students to pursue higher education. Aurora has worked in non-profit organizations that focus on students in at-risk situations and strives to instill leadership values in students, her daughter, spouse, family and herself.