Three FSU Alumni of Color Network members tell their stories

A couple years back, during one of FSU’s Homecoming and Family Weekends, former Chief Officer of Diversity and Inclusion  Sean Huddleston said he noticed a problem that needed to be addressed. From what he saw, not many of the alumni who came for the week’s events were graduates of color.     

So Huddleston came up with a concept that would later evolve into FSU’s Alumni of Color Network – a group within the Office of Development and Alumni Relations aimed at providing networking opportunities for students and alumni of color here at FSU. 

By working with Eric Gustafson, executive director in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, and by enlisting help from his “favorite alums of color” sociology professor Patricia Sánchez-Connally, Class of 2001, and her husband Jean, Class of 2002, Huddleston was able to make his concept a reality.

“There was already an informal network that had been created by Patricia, just through connections with her friends, the people she was friends with when she was here.

“So, we just formalized that,” he said.

After months of planning, and dozens of emails and calls to alums, The Alumni of Color Network officially had its kick-off event during last year’s homecoming weekend.

And while the network is in its early days – the primary way for alums to join the group is through a shared Facebook page – the University is hopeful the networking will keep on growing.   

Gustafson said, “People were having such a good time. They were networking and having so much fun that they didn’t want to leave. … To us, that’s a great sign – when the event is closing and people are having so much fun they don’t want to leave. ”

This week, The Gatepost is spotlighting the stories of three Alumni of Color Network members and their experiences as FSU students.   

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Wanda Montañez

Class of 2000

Just after finishing up her first year at FSU, Wanda Montañez, ’00, made the decision that she wasn’t coming back the next semester.

She said she wasn’t going to college for herself, but for “other people.”

Because obtaining a college degree was expected of her by her high school teachers, guidance counselors and peers, she felt a considerable amount of “social pressure.”

She added, “I was first-generation. … Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. So this notion of going on to get a degree was something that I would say probably spawned from being at the high school I was at.”

Montañez said her first year at FSU was “not a smooth transition.” She struggled academically and college expenses, such as tuition and textbooks, were significant financial burdens. 

“I also think there was a familial piece in that I came from a really tight-knit Puerto Rican family. I was the first person to go away to college, so I think there were for sure some issues of transition there,” she said.    

Montañez left FSU “with no intention of ever going back.”

But after she dropped out, Montañez realized something – if she wanted to have a more prosperous life than her Puerto Rican blue-collar working-class parents, she had to go back to school.

So, a semester and a summer later, Montañez came back to FSU, but with a different mindset – getting a degree was a goal she was going to accomplish for herself.

Montañez now serves as the director of college success at the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association.

In that role, Montañez works with 40 Massachusetts charter schools in creating professional development opportunities for college counselors and alumni coordinators. She also helps establish programs to track how individual charter schools are working toward implementing stronger programs for students’ academic success and college planning. 

Montañez said one of the most rewarding aspects of her job, and in her previous roles, is working with students. 

“For me, that was – and is why – I continue to do this work. I see myself in a lot of the students who I’ve worked with,” she said. “I was a low-income student of color. I lived in the projects. So the students who I worked with usually were a representation of who I was. So it’s important for me to serve as a role model whether it’s formally or informally.”    

Montañez moved with her family to Roxbury from Puerto Rico when she was 3 years old.    

For most of her life, her parents worked in a factory where they molded steel for a variety of products, including office clipboards and guns.  While her mother had to quit that job early on, since she had advanced rheumatoid arthritis, her father remained there until he retired a few years ago.

For Montañez, it’s important that students hear her story and think to themselves, “I can be from the projects. I can be low-income. I can be first-gen. I can be whatever label you want to give me, but if I want to get my doctorate, it’s totally possible.”   

Montañez said when she came back to FSU, she was able to make real connections with her professors in the psychology department and befriend students who could be positive influences in her life.

One of her most important mentors was the late psychology professor Antone Dias who she said was one of the only professors of color she had while at FSU.

“I think he taught me, and a lot of students of color, that we belonged where we were – that we had a voice, that we had a sense of responsibility to our communities,” she said.

“His role as a professor of color really transcended any academic study. He really was about motivating students to do better.”    

While Montañez graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s of science in psychology, during her senior year, she found a passion for community and educational counseling.

As a psychology major, Montañez said she knew she wanted to do work that involved interacting with people, so she decided to “explore” the counseling profession.

For her college internship requirement, Montañez interned at an all-girl after-school program in Roxbury.

Montañez said one of the most notable aspects of that internship was the fact that her supervisor was an educated woman of color who was in school studying to get her doctorate. 

“For me, that was the first time I had been in a space where my supervisor was A, a woman of color [and] B, was working on a terminal degree. That was very powerful for me.”

While she “didn’t recognize” how significant that was at the time, looking back, she said that was a “pivotal moment” in her career, as that internship allowed her to “test the waters” to see what she wanted to do professionally.

After she graduated from FSU, Montañez continued to work for the program for another semester and worked full-time at a Latino organization in Jamaica Plain spearheaded by Talent Search – a program that “provides academic, career and financial counseling” to individuals from low-income and disadvantaged homes, according to the program’s website. 

Montañez was placed in two different high schools in the area and essentially undertook college counseling work – helping students understand their options for financial aid and helping them complete their college applications.   

Montañez also ran her own after-school program for young Latina high-school women. 

“The focus of the program was Latino identity [and] being able to understand your space in the world as Dominican women, as Puerto Rican women,” she said.

Montañez decided to go back to school and obtained her master’s degree at Boston University in community counseling in 2004. Ten years later, she obtained her doctorate of education in higher education and higher education management from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 2014.

Montañez went on to work for number of colleges before obtaining her current job. At  Wheelock College, she served as the director of recruitment and multicultural enrollment. While at  Tufts University, she served as the coordinantor of undergraduate retention programs.

Montañez said all of her previous roles “built on one another.

“I think that initial experience at the after-school program, for sure, built on this notion that I wanted to work with kids and that I wanted to work with young people,” she said.

Through her various roles, Montañez has been able to work for a variety of institutions, including public district high schools, charter high schools, two-year colleges, private colleges and public colleges.

When looking back at her time at FSU, she said, initially, since she graduated from a primarily white high school, she thought Framingham State wasn’t very different.

Montañez said, however, since she lived in Roxbury, whenever she traveled to and from home, she couldn’t help but notice how the two communities juxtaposed one another when it came to the racial makeup of the areas.

“That’s something students still experience today, since I know a lot of students commute to Framingham,” she said. 

Montañez believes the campus has certainly made inroads in becoming more diverse within the last decade. Having worked with the University one-on-one, she said she knows the “effort is there.”

She added, “To see there are more folks of color in administrative roles is really important for students to have some folks to connect to, not to say that students of color can’t connect to white folks, but I think that the institution [should be] mindful that the makeup of faculty should mirror that of students.”

In regards to the Alumni of Color Network, she said it’s important it exists, since in the past, she never felt connected to the alumni office.

Montañez said what she particularly likes about the network is “this notion of being able to connect with alumni who have come after you. So, older alumni [can talk] to newer alums about job opportunities or opportunities to connect in the community and support different causes.

“I think there is a strength behind that.”     

Luis Rodriguez

Class of 2008

Even as a child in his native country of Peru, Luis Rodriguez, ’08, knew he had a passion for drawing and visual storytelling.

Heavily influenced by his love of Japanese movies such as “Akira” and other forms of Japanese animation, Rodriguez spent much of his childhood creating work that emulated that aesthetic.

“I did a lot of anime,” he said. “That was my dream job as a kid – to one day go to Japan and create my own anime, my own manga.”

While Rodriguez knew his chances of that dream becoming a reality were slim while living in Peru, the “beautiful thing” about coming to the United States was that he was given the opportunity to pursue a career that allowed him to follow his passions.   

Today, Rodriguez works as a graphic design specialist at FSU. In that role, he is in charge of a number of the University’s design projects. This includes designing posters for on-campus events and creating the yearly Arts & Ideas booklet that is distributed throughout campus. Rodriguez also helped design the University’s branding after it changed its status from a college to a University.

“I decided to go into graphic design because it was similar to what I really liked. I knew coming here, I could take some drawing classes and painting classes that were going to help me with my graphic design profession,” he said. “Graphic design is a passion for me, same as drawing and painting.”

Although in hindsight, Rodriguez is thankful his family decided to extend their temporary visit to the U.S. indefinitely, when they first came over in 2002 when he was about 12, Rodriguez was pretty dead-set on going back to Peru.

Due to the country’s poor economy, however, there were few job opportunities for his mother and father, so starting a new life in U.S. was the best option.

So that two-year visa quickly became a permanent residency.    

Despite his family’s decision, Rodriguez still wanted to go back. His friends and family were still there. He felt as though he had been uprooted from his life.

Additionally, early on in his time in the United States, Rodriguez’s parents were going through a divorce, which only made him want to go back even more.   

“I just wanted to go back to Peru,” he said. “I had this idea that everything was going to be perfect in Peru – that I still had my friends and everything was going to be fine.”

While Rodriguez was still a teen, he went back to Peru for about three months. He said while he was there he took a closer look at Peru’s economy and realized it would be mistake to go back permanently.   

So he decided against moving back – a decision that has most definitely worked in his favor, he said.

Growing up in the states, Rodriguez and his family lived in Worcester, as a few of his father’s friends had already made a home for themselves there prior to his family’s arrival.

Tasked with both learning the language and assimilating to American culture, Rodriguez explained his high school years were a bit of a challenge.

While at South High Community School in Worcester, Rodriguez formed a friend group comprised of other immigrants. Rodriguez said many members of the group didn’t have any papers.

“That was quite an experience, to see everything that was happening – how some of them had all these goals and dreams about going to college … and how their limitations were stifling them,” he said.      

Rodriguez, who became a U.S. citizen in 2013, said one of his most stirring high school memories occurred in an open discussion about immigration during one of his history classes.

“I remember having one [teacher] explaining all of these things and talking about how we could help each other have a voice,” he said. “That’s the thing I remember the most – how impactful some of the stories I heard from friends were.”

He added, “There was one friend, he crossed the border because he was trying to escape everything that was happening in his country. In the time that he was trying to do this, he lost his legs, a train rolled over him. … I know he had many dreams, but he couldn’t [accomplish them] because of his [legal] status.”

Rodriguez found his passion for graphic design in high school, after he took an introductory graphic design class when he was a sophomore. 

“That class was very basic,” he said. “We were just playing around with the program Adobe Photoshop. I really liked the things we can do with computers – drawing something different.”

Rodriguez’s assignments involved working with Photoshop’s various effect tools to create an assortment of abstract designs. What he loved most was that is was a “different kind of art.”

“That was the beginning for me,” he said. “It made me realize I really like working on the computers.”

Once Rodriguez graduated high school, he decided to attend FSU because of its location and his high school guidance counselor suggested it.

“It was a great experience here because I met people that pushed me to be better as a person. I didn’t only learn what I learned in the class, but I also learned personal skills [such as] how to become a leader, how to give to the community,” he said. 

Rodriguez said one of his most important mentors was Director of Career Services and Employer Relations Dawn Ross, because she helped him obtain a student worker job at the The Office of Development and Alumni Relations.

Because of that student worker job, Rodriguez was able to get a part-time job in the office after he graduated. A couple of years later, that part-time position became full time. Today, he is a graphic designer for the whole campus.

“Coming here was great because I took graphic design classes and they were more advanced than the classes I had taken in high school,” he said. The professors “made me think about composition, color and how one object relates to another, and the aesthetic of art.”

Rodriguez’s artistic schooling wasn’t limited to those graphic design classes, however. While he was at FSU, he also took a variety of painting and drawing classes.       

“I took Drawing 1, Drawing 2, Painting 1, Painting 2, Ceramics, Printmaking, and I think all of these classes, although they are not computer related, they did help me through my graphic design career,” he said. 

Two of his most notable professors were Marc Cote, dean of arts & humanities, and communication arts professor Jennifer Dowling, the instructor of his senior portfolio class.   

He still thinks of the lessons they taught him in his job today.

When thinking about the campus’ diversity efforts, Rodriguez said he has noticed that both the student body and faculty are becoming more diverse.

While he said there were only a few people of color when he was a student from 2004 to 2008, he said the University has taken great strides in becoming more multicultural.

For Rodriguez, the Alumni of Color Network is important because it gives students a list of contacts they can regularly connect with and is a phenomenal way “to promote diversity on campus.”

He added, “It’s a really good idea for all of us to come together and see how our ideas and work experiences can help alumni to network with a student.”

In his role in the Alumni of Color Network, Rodriguez will help design the network’s branding and visual identity. And although he hasn’t created any specific branding yet, he already has ideas cooking in his head, and is hopeful the group will become bigger as the years go by.

When reflecting on his 12-year run at FSU – first as a student and now as a faculty member – he can’t help but get a little sentimental.

“I’m an alum, so I feel like I’m a part of a family here,” he said. “I have made so many friends – people that I care about. … I just want to be a part of everything Framingham State.”

           

Fernando Rodriguez

Class of 2016

Growing up, Fernando Rodriguez, ’16, had always been a “city kid.”

Raised in Boston, Rodriguez said his decision to attend FSU was predicated on the fact that it was affordable and not too far away from his beloved Beantown.

“I didn’t know what Framingham was,” he said.

While Rodriguez entered that fall semester as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman, by the time he graduated he had made a name for himself as a student leader who spoke out against both the nation’s and FSU’s gender and racial inequities.     

Having led protests against police brutality and FSU’s failure to address a number of racially-charged incidents on campus, Rodriguez was steadfast about speaking out.

His efforts weren’t limited to protests, however.

As both Student Trustee his senior year and a major proponent of a number of diversity inclusion initiatives throughout his four years, Rodriguez said his efforts were aimed at addressing a number of social justice issues.

From creating his own club focused on reducing FSU’s low graduation and retention rates for men of color, Brother to Brother, to his aiding in the formation of the Student Leaders in Diversity affinity group, Rodriguez said he aimed to be an ambassador for students.     

“Every year, every semester, every month, there was always a new initiative, new motivation – a new set of ideas that were coming from students – and my only job was to give students who were new and younger a place where they could share those ideas,” he said.

For someone so dedicated to student outreach, it is perhaps no surprise that today Rodriguez works as a college success coach at Sociedad Latina in Roxbury – an organization aimed at creating “the next generation of Latino leaders who are confident, competent, self-sustaining and proud of their cultural heritage,” according to the group’s website. 

As a success coach, Rodriguez said he helps students who are applying to college.

By helping them fill out their college applications, providing money for transportation and speaking to students one-on-one about financial aid and their academic standing, Rodriguez said he is teaching them the information he learned while he was attending FSU as a first-generation student.

“My heart and passion has always been higher education,” he said. “That is when I feel like people are old enough, when they are in a place, where they are independent enough, to take into consideration the steps that you teach them and the values you instill in them. I feel like college is a place where people are really able to change their lives.”

Coming to FSU as a first-generation student and leaving behind a Boston middle school and high school that were ethnically diverse, Rodriguez experienced what he defined as “cultural shocks.” Although he credits the college-success nonprofit organization “Bottomline” as a major resource for teaching him the intricacies and logistics of college life early on, it was those “cultural shocks” that served as the matchbox that lit Rodriguez’s fiery passion throughout the remainder of his time at FSU. 

“In classrooms – I was a political science major – I’d like to talk about how racism and politics play a role in gentrification, or my society or my personal city and my life. And that would never be the topic we wanted to talk about,” he said.  “I had to form a club to talk about how I feel about this, or to validate my experience as a man of color.”

Rodriguez said during his freshman year, his Resident Assistant (RA) used a racial slur against one of his black friends after his friend had taken a hit of the RA’s vape pen.

“He told one of my friends that he ‘n***a lipped that hookah pen.’ That was my first experience with a white authority here,” he said.

He added, “It really made me realize a lot – that I was in a new environment. But it also pushed me to realize that these individual experiences weren’t the be-all end-all of my life, and they couldn’t define my whole FSU experience. I was going to define it for myself.”

After he joined the Council for Diversity and Inclusion and met a number of sociology professors, Rodriguez switched his major to sociology his sophomore year, as it was more in tune with his interest of understanding of how people think. 

It “allowed me to think more critically, to express more opinions, engage in more conversations like the ones I was seeking in political science,” he said. “I met a lot of people who taught me about their experiences in the culture shock I was experiencing going to college. So all this stuff I was feeling – I finally had a name for it.”        

One of Rodriguez’s favorite classes was sociology professor Patricia Sánchez-Connally’s Latinos in America class, where he learned more about what it means to be a Latino man in the United States today.

In that class, Rodriguez learned about code switching – which essentially means speaking in two different languages mid conversation, i.e. Spanglish – and “understanding that my culture wasn’t always the culture that was valued.”

Because of that class, Rodriguez said he was able to understand “why I was so angry as a child, why I was so conflicted, why I didn’t seek college. [I didn’t have] the knowledge that a lot of my other peers had about financial stability, about professionalism – just a lot of the stuff that people look for in success in the world, I feel like me and a lot of my peers … were never taught that, were never told we could amount to something.”     

Rodriguez immigrated to Boston from Puerto Rico when he was 3 years old. Being a part of a close-knit Latino family, Rodriguez said after his aunt brought his cousin up to Boston for medical reasons, many of his family members shortly followed.

Since Rodriguez’s Latin heritage is very much a part of his identity – he still listens to Latin music and eats Latin food – growing up, he struggled to accept what he defines as the “Eurocentric” version of history that is taught in American schools. 

As a teen, Rodriguez was often stereotyped as a thug because of his dialect and apparel, despite the fact he was educated and working on initiatives aimed at making his community more inclusive for low-income immigrants and DREAMers.

“In high school and in middle school, I was very involved with my community and people would assume that I was either some sort of criminal … or patronize me and tell me I was well-spoken,” he said. “A lot of these small things – these microaggressions – led up to a lot of emotional feelings of anger.”

Rodriguez went to Rafael Hernández K-8 School – a bilingual school that emphasizes multicultural education and later went to John D. O’Bryant – a college preparatory public exam high school.

While Rodriguez said his middle school and high school were primarily made up of people who, for the most part, represented the Boston community – Latinos, African Americans and a small number of whites and Asians – he said FSU was far less diverse – something he took note of as early as his freshman orientation.

“They’d start talking about diversity, but they had the same kind of looking students as orientation leaders,” he said. “They were all the same preppy happy-looking kids from the same background, maybe one or two kids who looked different. … They would talk about diversity on stage and say diversity was much more about race. That’s how they would use diversity.     

“I found myself in situations where I was the only person of color,” he said.

While he said in the last couple of years FSU has made great strides in becoming more inclusive and diverse, there is still a lot of work to be done.

“I definitely saw growth. I saw improvement. I saw students taking ownership of this work. So the environment is becoming where we want it to be, but just like any other environment, it’s not there yet.”

He said the University should focus on providing both more cultural and social support for people of color, expand the first-generation and first-year programs and hire a number of college success professionals.

For Rodriguez, the Alumni of Color Network is important because it “allows students who are going into college, who might be the first in their family, to know what they can do once they leave,” he said. 

During the network’s kick-off event in September, Rodriguez said he valued being able to network with principals from two of Framingham’s district high schools, because they were working in the education industry.

He learned “how they were honored and how they had awards for the tremendous work they had done for the community,” he said. “When thinking about the network five years from now, Rodriguez said he sees it only getting bigger.

“In five years, I see five years of success. I see five years of me and my other graduates moving onwards in their lives, learning a lot from life, and passing that on to the next graduates who are going to do even better than us,” he said. “So we are going to have five years of tremendous people of color really going into their communities … because the support is going to continue to grow.”

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