Doctoral student draws on passion for social justice, education in Latino recruitment role

Luimil Negrón

UMSL alumna and Puerto Rico native Luimil Negrón returned to campus this fall to pursue a doctoral degree in global education and leadership. She’s also diving into a graduate assistantship focused on Latino recruitment and retention. (Photo by August Jennewein)

During an interview intended to focus on her, Luimil Negrón keeps turning the conversation toward others.

There’s the language professor who recently helped Negrón translate a scholarship guide, the doctoral classmates who are expanding her understanding of global education and leadership – and then there’s the young people who inspire her every day.

“Dealing with students who are first-generation and seeing the barriers that they face is very different and very humbling, too,” says Negrón, whose graduate assistantship at the University of Missouri–St. Louis has her tackling Latino recruitment and retention on behalf of the institution. “These kids – they’ve gone through a lot, and look what they’re doing.”

The same could be said of Negrón, who returned to her native Puerto Rico four years ago upon finishing her coursework for two master’s degrees from UMSL. Now back on campus pursuing a doctoral degree from UMSL’s College of Education, she also puts in many hours supporting and attracting Hispanic students to the same university she chose to attend after enduring Hurricane Katrina.

“I came out of that with my violin and a set of clothes,” says Negrón, who was an elementary music teacher in New Orleans at the time and ended up in St. Louis following the evacuation. “That was all I had. It was very scary. I was in my twenties, and I had students who were very much affected by it.”

Her own experience there and her years in Puerto Rico make her passionate about education and social justice issues – and also make her new role and new studies at UMSL “a perfect fit.”

“Actually, in one of the key classes that we’ve had so far, a professor reflected on his experience dealing in Ferguson as a white male professor,” Negrón says. “That really made me think a lot about how I should envision my job. I’ve learned so much. [The EdD program is] different from a PhD in that it’s very focused on practice. It’s pushing me to think in different ways than I would have ever imagined, and it’s so tied to my job, too.”

Part of her role, which is a new one housed under the College of Arts and Sciences, is to get out into the local Latino community and talk with people. That includes interacting with prospective students, influential community leaders and potential donors.

“Hopefully that will create interest and make it very visible that this is a [Latino] community that is expanding and is a future face of the university,” she says. “Enrollment nationwide has been increasing. Even this semester we have a 25-percent increase in Hispanic students, which is the biggest increase that we’ve had. It’s going to become an important group, and UMSL has had the foresight to say, ‘OK, how do we create the avenues of communication between the community and the university and figure this out?'”

Negrón credits her associates at UMSL with helping her hit the ground running this fall. In September, when a key conference addressing many of the same issues took place in Washington, D.C., she was able to attend thanks to university support.

“That was really awesome,” she says. “I was able to see nationwide what other universities are dealing with so we can start anticipating and laying the groundwork in terms of what we can do.”

Particularly troubling and urgent in Negrón’s view are the challenges facing those students who are often referred to as DREAMers under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

“You hear cases of people who don’t even know that they were not born here, because they came here as young children, and their parents didn’t tell them,” Negrón says. “Imagine that. Then you find out that, oh, you don’t have a social security number. This is why. Then after being accepted to college, you find out you can’t attend. These are people who are working actively to help their situation in life and the community.”

As she works to build relationships, increase scholarship support and recruit more Latino students to UMSL as well as pursue her own studies, Negrón says she couldn’t be more thrilled with the new assistantship. Among other aspects of the wide-ranging position, she enjoys supporting a community characterized by “hard-working people who want the best for their families and their kids.”

“It’s been a great experience,” she says. “Higher education has been transformative for me and my family, and I hope to help others discover that. I’m here to connect students to all those possible ways for them to get help and succeed.”

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