In the aftermath of 9/11, Eduardo Contreras was given one of his first opportunities to make an impact on his community as a graduate student. He was studying Islamic religious practices at the time and administration at the University of Texas (UT) invited him to give a presentation to the office.
“I gave this presentation and I thought, ‘this is what education should do: inform dominant communities on historically minoritized communities,’” Contreras said.
Fast forward over a decade later, Contreras began working at UP as the director of study abroad. This role propelled him to the position he holds now: associate provost for international education, diversity and inclusion.
Before finding his passion of uplifting and highlighting diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work on campus, he had fallen in love with travel and study abroad.
One of his oldest friends and colleagues, Shaz Viljee, remembers this excitement was always present since his college years. One of his earliest memories of Contreras is running into him at the airport in 1999 right before he jetted across the globe for his first experience studying abroad as a graduate student.
“He was about to go to India for the first time,” Vijlee said. “So I think it's just been this consistent thing from his adolescence that travel was his form of adventure.”
At the time, Contreras was pursuing a Master of Arts in Asian Languages and Cultures at The University of Texas (UT). After beginning to explore other cultures, his curiosity for the world beyond Texas was just getting started.
His passion for study abroad and international experiences continued to develop throughout his education until he found a position in the study abroad office at UT. It was at this time, he began to explore his passions more deeply.
Speaking from his own experience, Contreras didn’t have the opportunity to study abroad as an undergraduate student — something he eventually regretted. In his eyes, travel is an incredible learning opportunity, an experience to dig into other cultures and come back with a deeper appreciation for the world.
“When I came to UP, I started as the director of study abroad, but really with the idea of expanding study abroad opportunities for as many UP students as possible,” Contreras said.
This dedication of advancing opportunities and access is what landed Contreras in the realm of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and access work.
In the spring of 2018, UP was planning to create a new position: the director of equity and inclusion. However, the search was called off and not long after, an organizational change resulted in Contreras taking on a new position that combined his job with the directorial role.
“It wasn't an automatic path,” Vijlee said. “He was on the hiring committee [for the director of equity and inclusion position]. The University saw that he could be that person so they kind of created his role for him. And that says a lot about him.”
In this new position, Contrereas gave diversity, equity and inclusion work a seat at the president’s cabinet, which was a huge step at UP.
“The fact that my position was created and that I've been able to advocate it in different places has been helpful,” Contreras said. “I'm not the kind of person who likes to go bang my hand on the table, but I do feel like I'm persistent about encouraging things to happen.”
At the time, Contreras was working two jobs as assistant provost and the director of studies abroad, but his commitment never wavered. He continued to lead efforts in the Office of International Education, Diversity and Inclusion (OEIDI).
During his time as assistant provost, Contreras has seen, and been a part of, many transformative changes on campus.
In the past five years, he has contributed to many changes in the OEIDI office including the establishment of the Diversity Center, the implementation of MLK Day On and assisted in bringing DEI Consultant Elizabeth Ortiz to UP for a full assessment of DEI work on campus.
But the work has not been without its challenges. DEI progress is a controversial subject among communities since there are always people who won’t appreciate the work for being either too slow or too radical.
“Working to advance equity, from a kind of institution-wide perspective is really hard because you're not necessarily trying to upset either of those extremes,” Contreras said. “But you need to get the work done. And so you have to have the conviction to say, ‘No, this is the right thing to do’ and then you have to figure out how to do it politically. I think that's a big challenge. How do you change the way a culture thinks?”
Functioning under this pressure is exhausting and is one of the many reasons why DEI work frequently leads to burnout. Knowing this, Contreras has found a way to reframe the work at UP in a way that highlights everything we have to feel joyful about.
“DEI work is not always about the struggle,” Contreras said. “It can be about that. [But] it's also about joy and celebrating who we are for all of our intersectional identities.”
It’s this upbeat attitude and dedication to DEI work that have made Contreras such a joy to collaborate with over the years.
“He just does everything in such a calm and kind of deliberate way,” Vijlee said. “It's kind of hard not to trust him. If you're ever unsure, stop and say ‘What would Eddie do?’”
The loss of his presence on campus will be difficult to fill. According to an email sent to the UP community on March 14, plans to fill his position are underway.
Despite this loss, there is a silver lining. Contreras will be returning to his home state of Texas to take on the position of vice provost for global engagement at Baylor University, a change he is hopeful for.
“I'm a mix of emotions,” Contreras said. “Excited. I'm nervous. Happy to go to Baylor. I'm sad to leave UP. So, it's all those emotions all jumbled into one.”
Even though Contreras will be leaving The Bluff, he’ll be taking the lessons he learned with him and moving onto another position where he can create meaningful changes and continue to make an impact on the lives of college students.
“A lot of what I've learned at UP, about the importance of community, connection and belonging, will resonate when I get to Baylor.” Contreras said. “To be able to keep leaning into this notion that ‘it ain't gonna get done by yourself, so you need a community, you need a team’ that will continue in Waco.”
Chiara Profenna is the DEI editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.