Significance of Excelencia's Tree of Life

Tree of Life montage


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Most office conference rooms around the country look similar—a large table, multiple chairs, maybe a dry eraser board on a wall, and little else. The conference room in the Washington, D.C. office of Excelencia in Education is as unique, vibrant, and interesting as the groundbreaking organization itself.

In Excelencia’s conference room is “Excelencia’s Tree of Life” a one-of-a-kind ceramic created by nationally acclaimed sculptor and artist Verónica Castillo that encapsulates Excelencia’s history and mission.

Excelencia was founded in 2004 by two smart, strong willed Latinas who wanted to make a difference. Sarita Brown and Deborah Santiago recognized a need and an opportunity and responded by putting a stake in the ground to serve a mission of national importance and urgency, accelerating Latino student success in higher education.

As the first 10 years of service were coming to a close, Excelencia was a recognized organization advancing solutions to better serve Latino students. The cofounders considered a meaningful way to observe their decennial. They wanted something that reflected the organizational mission, its cultural roots and that celebrated educational achievement. Excelencia commissioned the San Antonio based artist Verónica Castillo, a third-generation sculptor and award-winning ceramicist, for the project. She created “Excelencia’s Tree of Life,” the sculpture now is on display in Excelencia’s office.

Tree of Life - base with founders

At first glance the sculpture is a depiction of a large, healthy tree. Looking more closely you see representations of the cofounders at the base of the tree and a wide trunk with branches extending outward. The branches supporting Latino and Latina students in caps and gowns, and their future professional attire are interspersed with depictions of traditional art forms of hearts and flowers. Through this artwork Excelencia communicates its unfaltering belief in what can be accomplished by planting a seed nourished to growth through support, collaboration and hard work.   

Since its installation, the Tree of Life has become a focal point for discussion and imagery of Excelencia’s mission. Visitors gravitate to it, admire it, study it. Taking selfies and group pictures with it is now an Excelencia tradition. The art, which powerfully communicates the essence and success of Excelencia’s impact, was featured in Excelencia’s Quinceañera (15 year) commemorative poster in 2019.

Like “Excelencia’s Tree of Life,” Excelencia’s founders, staff, Board, and supporters remain committed to linking research, policy, and practice to accelerate Latino student success to grow the talent for tomorrow’s workforce and civic leadership that will ensure America’s bright future.


View the Excelencia Tree of Life