AUSTIN (KXAN) — The University of Texas at Austin is commemorating 50 years of offering Latino studies opportunities during Hispanic Heritage Month this September.

“I know that the people who were there at the very beginning probably never dreamed that we would be what we are today,” described Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, who is the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the university and is also a professor in the Moody College of Communication.

The celebration is meant to salute the university’s efforts toward establishing an environment where Latino and Latina students feel welcomed and encouraged to live out their culture while pursuing their dreams.

Rivas-Rodriguez, who has been on faculty with the university since 1998, said enrollment for Latinos has more than doubled since then, with the latest number now at more than 26%, according to NBC News.

“Particularly Latino students who come from areas where they’re very close to their families, and they come here, and it doesn’t feel like home… when they come… they can get a little home there,” said Rivas-Rodriguez. “Because we are very family oriented and most of us will always say ‘I could not be here without my family’ — and that’s the extended family — the grandmas, grandpas, cousins and aunts and uncles.”

The program began as a student-led effort for the university to offer courses about Mexican American topics and inspire the use of that education to support Latino communities.

“What it means to have a place where the values of Latinos are appreciated and recognized is really important,” explained Rivas-Rodriguez.

Latino Studies at UT has evolved into three units since its launch in 1970, which includes the Center for Mexican American Studies, the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies and the Latino Research Institute.

“I think Latino studies give students an idea of possibilities out there,” said Rivas-Rodriguez, offering the latest success story about Monica Muñoz Martinez, a UT historian who was just awarded a $625,000 grant for her work highlighting racial violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“You look at somebody like that, and you can say that’s a possibility, and you can leave a mark, and you can be recognized for the great work that you do,” explained Rivas-Rodriguez, adding it was intentional to celebrate it during Hispanic Heritage Month.

“It says something,” she said. “We’re here at UT Austin where our culture and our presence is really essential for our great university to reach the potential that it can. We need to be a part of that, and we are so happy that the university recognizes that.”