"My education has been made possible almost entirely by benefactors of the institutions that I’ve attended,” says Cindy Castañeda, a community college professor.
(Photography by Cooper Neill)

In learning, a legacy

Mindful of her past, a Harris Public Policy alumna creates opportunities for future students.

It’s no surprise that Cindy Castañeda, MPP’95—a community college profes­sor who earned degrees from Harvard, the University of Chicago, and two institu­tions in Texas—calls herself “a big believer in education.” What’s more remarkable is her path as first-generation college student whose love of learning has always propelled her forward.

One of four sisters, Castañeda grew up in El Centro, California, a small city near the US-Mexico border. Her mother and stepfather—a farmworker who labored long hours in the nearby produce fields—strug­gled to provide for the family. But they were resourceful; her mom knew when the dumpster behind the local Kmart was likely to hold discarded items they could use. And Castañeda, who was small, would crawl in and scavenge for valuables like clothes and books to bring home.

Castañeda’s parents encouraged their daughters to work hard. An avid reader and high-achieving student, Castañeda won a scholarship to attend a private boarding school that prepared her for college. Anoth­er scholarship took her to Harvard, where she earned a bachelor’s degree with honors in social studies.

Drawn to public service, Castañeda next wanted to pursue a master’s in public policy. “I thought Chicago would be a fan­tastic fit because it has such a strong reputa­tion for quantitative analytics and rigorous research and academics,” she says. She was also attracted by the opportunity to work closely with faculty in the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s graduate program. Castañeda recalls class­es with Laurence Lynn, the Sydney Stein Jr. Professor Emeritus of Public Management, as a particular highlight.

Lynn was also the first professor who encouraged Castañeda to pursue a doctorate. She did so, earning a PhD in higher educa­tion from the University of North Texas in 2004 after working as an administrator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other institutions. Today, Castañeda teaches US and state and local government at Eastfield College, a Dallas-area commu­nity college that primarily serves low-income, first-generation, and Latino students.

Castañeda says her students are highly motivated but typically need to work several jobs and obtain financial aid to pay for their coursework. To fund her own education at Harris Public Policy, she relied on a Harry S. Truman Scholarship and “a very healthy award” from the University. “My education has been made possible almost entirely by benefactors of the institutions that I’ve at­tended,” she says. “I’ve always felt that if I were ever in a financial position to give back to the institutions that have helped me, it would be important to do so.”

Last year Castañeda honored that com­mitment by designating Harris as a benefi­ciary of her individual retirement account (IRA). By making a planned gift, she hopes to meet her personal financial goals while providing opportunities for future public policy students. Castañeda has two sons—one in college and one in high school—and her husband, Ray Canham, a community college administrator, has just retired. “It’s important for me to take care of my family now and make sure I have the financial re­sources for my two children to get an educa­tion that’s going to serve them well,” she says. “But I also want to take care of the institu­tions that I love and know that I’ll be part of their legacy of service to others.”

Education and travel remain Castañe­da’s top priorities. She became a community college student herself in 2014, earning an associate’s degree in geographic informa­tion systems that she uses in her classroom teaching. Next on the horizon, she and Canham plan to move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is eager to study New Mexico’s Native American pueblos, as well as the region’s culture, geology, and geography. “I’m a curious person,” she says. “There’s always something to learn.”

Back to Building for the Future newsletter.