One of the goals of Hispanic Heritage month is to build pride among the Latinx community, but it doesn’t always take parades or museum exhibitions to meet that goal. NIU Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management Mayra Lagunas has seen such pride happen a few times this semester just by showing up at recruitment events.
“We recently hosted a Preview Day for prospective students and, afterward, I had at least two families come up to me to say that I was the first Latina they had seen walk on stage at one of these events,” says Lagunas, who is the first Latina to serve in her role at NIU.
Seeing a Latina in such a position has a significant impact for many Latinx families. “People are much more comfortable when they can work with someone who shares their lived experiences,” she says. “This is especially true for those of us who are the children of immigrants. We often hear stories of our parents’ struggle to come to the U.S. and we feel a responsibility to be successful.”
Lagunas remembers how difficult her own college search was. The first in her family to go to college, she had to navigate the process on her own. She was accepted at the University of Illinois but still had to convince her parents that going downstate was a good idea. She still remembers the tremendous stress of trying to translate information that she herself barely understood for her parents.
Then a Spanish-speaking recruiter sat down with her and her parents and was able to put their concerns to rest. The experience has inspired Lagunas throughout her career in college admissions.
“Being in this field allows me to educate Latinx students and their families not just about the college search process but also to inform them about the opportunities available through higher education,” she says.
NIU’s Latinx enrollment has been growing steadily in recent years, and Lagunas says it is reasonable to expect that will continue as that segment of the U.S. population grows. However, she does not take rising Latinx enrollment for granted. “Just because those numbers are increasing naturally doesn’t mean we can be passive,” she says.
One change she hopes to implement in the coming months is the addition of more bilingual programming to improve the percentage of Latinx students who actually enroll at NIU. Key to those efforts will be the ability to assure those students that NIU provides the type of community and supports they might need to thrive in college.
“We are working to be intentional about building an infrastructure that ensures we don’t just enroll Latinx students, but also support them so that they get the assistance they need to graduate,” she says.
Lagunas has been excited to work with the Latino Resource Center, the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies and the office for Undocumented Student Support, which have been building that support system for years. Being located in a community with a growing and thriving Latinx community is also a positive, Lagunas says, as is the existence of Latinx student organizations and things such as a banda (an ensemble made up mostly of brass, woodwinds and percussion) that make it easier to assure Latinx students that they can find a home at NIU and thrive academically.
Lagunas is also excited about the work being done by Christina Abreau at the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies to gather an oral history of Latinx life in the region, including interviews with students at NIU.
“She has done an amazing job of collecting an oral history of students here. It allows us to benchmark the experiences they had with admissions and learn about the best practices that have worked for current and past students,” she says. “It’s such important work because it is difficult to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you are coming from.”
While Hispanic Heritage Month has Lagunas reflecting on outreach efforts for Latinx populations, she says that the same review of recruitment efforts that are prompting changes in outreach to Latinx students will inform and improve outreach to all students, but especially those from marginalized backgrounds.