Cindy Cruz said the support she received nearly three decades ago from members of an upstart group of women representing diverse cultural and social backgrounds propelled her into a doctorate program and a thriving career in academia.

She is now an associate professor in education at UC Santa Cruz and has taken up the role of mentor, encouraging other Latinas to pursue careers in higher education.

“Nobody had ever told me about a Ph.D.,” Cruz said about her mindset before a fateful boost from a mentor many years ago. “She planted a seed that I later followed.”

Cruz was among nearly 200 professors, students and community activists from across the country planning to attend a three-day conference at Sonoma State University meant to highlight the years--long effort to diversify the ranks of academia, a field still largely dominated by white men.

The conference, which starts today and includes several free,, public sessions, is put on by Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, or Women Active in Letters and Social Change. The national organization for Latinas, Afro-Latinas, Native American and indigenous women and gender- nonconforming activists is the same group that supported Cruz in the early stage of her career.

Although student bodies have grown much more reflective of U.S. society at large — Latinos now make up nearly a third of students at Sonoma State, for example — the share of Latino faculty lags far behind at many campuses statewide. At Sonoma State, Latinos make up just 6 percent of faculty members. In Sonoma County, they make up 26 percent of all residents and statewide account for about 38  percent of all Californians, according to census figures.

“It’s a public institution. It’s supposed to serve first - generation, underserved college students,” Judith Flores Carmona, an assistant professor at New Mexico State University said about California’s state college system.

This is the first time the annual conference has come to Sonoma State, which was named earlier this year a Hispanic Serving Institution, a federal designation that makes the university eligible for millions of dollars in grants. Workshops and panel discussions range from academic writing and traditional herbal healing practices to Latina faculty member experiences in higher education.

“We’re debunking the myth that we don’t belong,” Flores Carmona, who is chairwoman of organizing group. “We belong.”

The conference gives college administrators an opportunity to network with accomplished Latino professors from around the country, Flores Carmona said.

The organization and conference create a safe space for Latina students to see themselves as emerging scholars, said Martha Acevedo, a retired California Department of Education compliance officer who sits on the group’s committee. She said young Latinas often aren’t seen by professors as future scholars, although they have a lot to offer the field.

“It’s encouraging to see these women,” said Marisol Castorena, a 20-year-old Cal State Northridge student majoring in biology and Chicano studies. She plans to go to medical school after getting her bachelor’s degree.

“When I see them, I think it’s possible to do this,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.