Dr. Elsa Núñez

Administration September 2021 PREMIUM
Working Towards Equity and Inclusiveness

When Elsa Núñez walked into an American classroom for the first time she was eight and didn’t speak a word of English. She was thrust into the classroom and forced to learn English by the process of osmosis, she says. School districts hadn’t established ESL or ELL programs yet. “I just sat in the corner and picked up words from the kids. The teacher didn’t teach me any English…The first words I learned were jump rope,” she says. “They thought I was slow.”

Núñez went on to earn a B.A. from Montclair State College, an M.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and an Ed.D. in Language Education from Rutgers University, all in New Jersey. Today she is president of Eastern Connecticut State University.

Dr. Núñez’ early English language deficit may have worked in her favor. “Not being able to speak English led me to really want to learn English and respect the English language,” she says. “I paid attention to words and of course the construction of sentences and paragraphs. I really wanted to learn how to read,” she remembers. That appreciation led her to study the formation of languages and their logic.

Compassion for English Language Learners

Before becoming president at Eastern, Dr. Núñez held a number of positions at colleges in the New York Metropolitan area. One was professor of English, where her experiences as an English language learner informed her teaching methods and strategies. “I was very sensitive to my students…When students showed weaknesses in writing or in analytical skills, I was very compassionate. I got very good teacher evaluations because I would reach out to students, especially those who felt a little bit inadequate in terms of their English skills,” says Dr. Núñez. Without her own personal experience as an English language learner, she says, she would not have been as effective in the classroom.

Often she would throw out the textbook and develop her own practices to teach the content. “I think it was because I had to learn it in different ways in order to acquire good language skills,” says Dr. Núñez.   

Moving Towards Equity and Inclusiveness

Dr. Núñez has written several articles on language acquisition, diversity, and academic attainment as well as two books. In 1992 she published Pursuing Diversity and in 2014 Hanging Out and Hanging On: From the Projects to the Campus.

At the time she wrote Pursuing Diversity, diversity was a national goal. “What was lacking was methodology. How do you accomplish what you want? By recruiting more students of color, by having a more diverse workforce, by making sure we retain people of color in our employment, (making sure) students graduate. All of that was being discussed,” says Dr. Núñez. She wrote the book because she felt she was well-informed on the topic. “It reached a broad audience, and I was grateful for the response that it got,” she says.

Linked to Pursuing Diversity, Hanging Out and Hanging On chronicles the progress of six students from Hartford and Manchester, Connecticut who were enrolled in the Dual College Enrollment Program at Eastern. In this book Dr. Núñez brings the students’ voices into the conversation. “A major difference,” she says. “I thought that it was really important for me not just to talk about it in generalities and to preach to people about what they should be doing,” says Dr. Núñez. Her goal was to present stories of adversity delivered by the students themselves. “Once you hear the stories it does motivate you to change and have a more inclusive and equitable society,” says Dr. Núñez.

The strides Hispanics have made in equity in the U.S. are tied to specific regions, says Dr. Núñez. When national data are viewed in the aggregate they present one picture, but when the data are disaggregated it’s an entirely different landscape. Mexican Americans, she says, have done very well in the west and Midwest, mainly because so many have come to the U.S. so as a group they enjoy a robust support system. Cuban American students graduate at a rate that mirrors those of the white middle class. She attributes their success to their intent to stay in America. “They never thought of going back to their country because of Castro,” says Dr. Núñez. Also Cubans tend to migrate to the U.S. as middle class people to begin with. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, however, have struggled in higher education.

“It’s taken Hispanics a very long time to make the gains that we thought they would make much sooner. We’ve made great gains, you can’t deny that. And you have so many institutions that are Hispanic serving today […]  those (schools) are recruiting, retaining, and graduating a lot of Hispanic students,” says Dr. Núñez.

Bringing a Liberal Arts Education to the Masses

The first liberal arts college in the US was Harvard College, where exclusively white men studied math science, religion, art, etc. “They built networks of (very accomplished men) so when they graduated they had these fantastic networks,” says Dr. Núñez. Eventually the state of New York established the first public liberal arts college, Geneseo College, part of the State University of New York system. Connecticut followed suit shortly thereafter by establishing Eastern. The goal was to afford individuals from modest backgrounds the opportunity to receive a quality liberal arts education, which up to that point was only for privileged white men. Eastern is still the only public liberal arts college in the state.

Eastern has about 6000 students, of which 30% are students of color. It boasts the highest number of faculty of color, 33%, in the state. The school’s retention rate is 76% and it’s six-year graduation rate is 56%. “We have the best graduation rate of all the state universities in Connecticut,” says Dr. Núñez. “Because Eastern is a public liberal arts college it has two great strengths. One is a rigorous liberal arts education: you study math, science, humanities, and social science. The second is, because everything is based on critical thinking, the students get an education on how to think critically, how to think systematically, how to raise questions, how to be analytical. Part of a liberal arts education is critical analysis,” says Dr. Núñez.

When Dr. Núñez looks back on her 16 years at the helm of Eastern she reflects “It’s been a phenomenal run. You usually get fired after two or three (years),” she adds with a laugh. Joking aside, she points to two accomplishments she is most proud of. First is Eastern’s retention and graduation rates. “They are number one in the state. We don’t just accept you at Eastern. You develop a plan to graduate in four years. Many colleges are having trouble graduating students, especially students of color,” says Dr. Núñez. The second accomplishment is Eastern’s high admission standards. “They’re the same as the University of Connecticut. They are very, very rigorous. Even though we have a diverse student body,” says Dr. Núñez. Eastern graduates are well received and recruited by companies like Etna and Travelers Insurance and Cigna healthcare. 

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