The first time Mayra Lagunas realized that universities had a department dedicated to recruiting students was when she was hired to work in Office of Undergraduate Admissions for the University of Illinois.
Eleven years later, she has emerged as an up-and-coming leader in the field of college admissions and has been selected to become assistant vice president/director of admissions for Northern Illinois University.
“Mayra is one of those rare individuals who demonstrates a clear understanding of data-driven strategies while displaying tremendous emotional intelligence. She is a seasoned professional with connections throughout the state, and we are confident that she will keep our Strategic Enrollment Management Plan moving forward,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “Throughout her career, she has championed programs that remove barriers for students, so her values align perfectly with our commitment to equity and inclusion. We are very excited to have her lead our admissions team.”
The feeling is mutual, Lagunas said.
“I am thrilled to be joining an outstanding institution that is dedicated to creating a more equitable process for students. NIU truly strives to live out its mission of making a college degree an attainable goal for students of all backgrounds,” she said.
Lagunas knows better than most just how life-changing that opportunity can be.
“I attended a high school that wasn’t very well resourced,” said Lagunas, who grew up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods of Chicago. “I met recruiters from every branch of the military, but I don’t recall ever seeing a college recruiter.”
Having been enrolled in JROTC throughout high school, with a limited understanding of the college enrollment process, she set her sights on a career in the military. However, late in her senior year, she changed her mind and began scrambling for a back-up plan, which ended up being the University of Illinois. She applied with little idea of what the school offered, or even where it was. She also did not know how to get financial aid or scholarships, but she realized that she would have to figure it out for herself.
“While my parents emotionally supported me going to college, they had no idea how to help me through the process,” said Lagunas, who proved a quick learner as she pieced together a collection of grants and scholarships that made college possible.
After graduation, she worked for a year as a counselor in an Early Head Start program when a former college roommate tipped her off that the University of Illinois Office of Admissions in Chicago was looking for someone to assist Latinx families. She landed the job.
While she was learning as she went, Lagunas wasn’t shy about sharing suggestions based on her own experience as a first-generation Latinx student. “I began asking why we weren’t translating information into Spanish for Latinx families. I asked why we weren’t having conversations with them in Spanish when they came to campus. I raised the issue of how we supported undocumented students. Because of my experiences and the fact that I have many family members who are undocumented, these issues were, and are, particularly important to me.”
After two years of serving as the primary recruiter at 70 high schools in Chicagoland, she left the university briefly for a job in recruitment for the Golden Apple Scholars of Illinois program, where she worked to diversify the teacher workforce by sharing scholarship opportunities with future teachers.
She returned to the U. of I. in 2016 as an assistant director of Undergraduate Admissions and quickly rose to the position of senior assistant director. Her duties included serving as the primary point of contact for underrepresented, first-generation and low-income student populations as well as overseeing all recruitment efforts in Chicago and the suburbs.
In 2019, Lagunas took a new job as associate director of the Visitors Center at the University of Illinois Chicago. In that role, she created a new comprehensive visitor plan for the university and established processes to better support student and staff development.
As she began to rise through the ranks, Lagunas reached out to pull others up with her.
Shortly before leaving the U of I for UIC, she began collaborating with two colleagues to create Leadership, Equity, Accountability & Diversity (LEAD), a one-year professional development for college admissions counselors of color. Built on the foundations of Critical Race Theory, the program is committed to providing personal and professional growth and building careers within higher education. LEAD earned high praise during its first two years of existence and received a 2019 Rising Star Award from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
On the state level, Lagunas also received the 2019 Molly K. Arnold President’s Service Recognition Award from the Illinois Association for College Admission Counseling and, in 2018, received the organization’s Inclusion, Access and Success Service Award for her work on behalf of historically underrepresented students.
A few months ago, Lagunas began hearing from people in her extensive network who were encouraging her to apply for the assistant vice president job at NIU. After researching the position, she was impressed by recent steps designed to make the admissions process more equitable – including dropping the application fee and eliminating standardized test scores from decisions about admissions and scholarships. She became even more interested in the job as she proceeded through the interview process.
“No matter who I spoke to at NIU, from President Freeman to the admissions staff, the commitment to access and equity was obvious,” she said. “I could clearly see that NIU is committed to becoming a local and national leader in access and equity in higher education, and I am thrilled to have a hand in pushing that mission forward. I am humbled by the opportunity to work with President Freeman to make that happen.
“Throughout my career, I have been helped and inspired by so many people who have worked in service to that goal, and I look forward to being surrounded by a team of individuals committed to that work at NIU,” she added.
Lagunas will start at NIU on June 1 and complete her Master of Education in Urban Higher Education at UIC this fall.