Sarah Nuñez is a Western Carolina University assistant director of admissions based at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Nuñez also works as a liaison between WCU and A-B Tech and comes to WCU to learn about campus programs and services, academic programs, and to network. Her area of expertise is dealing with the admissions and education process for students, and she recently hosted a one-hour training session centered on working with Latino students at WCU and developed a Latino Student Resource Guide with support from the WCU’s Office of Admission, Division of Student Affairs and Public Policy Institute.
Nuñez holds an associate’s degree in arts from A-B Tech, which she earned as part of a transfer program, and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on Latin America in a global context from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. In May, she completed a master’s degree in public affairs at WCU.
Reporter: Where are you from?
Nuñez: I am originally from Bogotá, Colombia. My family and I moved to the United States when I was 3 years old. My mother is American, and my father is Colombian, so I like to call myself Colombian-American.
Reporter: Have you returned to Bogotá?
Nuñez: I was always interested in Bogotá because my family was originally from there. My family from Bogotá would visit us during the holidays, so that really made me interested in the culture and I always wanted to know more about the area. When I was 20 years old, I went back and, over the course of a year-and-a-half, spent 8 months there. The longest span of time during that year-and-a-half was for about 6 months. I taught English, and had a small apartment by myself in a nice part of town. I was really able to engulf myself in the culture during this time, and was able to learn a lot of valuable things. I was able to learn the language, because at that time I was not bilingual. This is also when I learned how to dance and cook Colombian food. I love to salsa dance, and dancing in general. I love to travel. We try to go for a visit every other year to visit family. My husband also is from Bogotá, and my grandmother still lives there.
Reporter: What languages can you speak?
Nuñez: Right now, I can speak English and Spanish, and I’m currently learning how to speak Portuguese.
Next year, I will be going to Brazil for five weeks. I have been selected as a team member for the Rotary Club Group Study Exchange Program. There will be four of us plus our team leader on the trip. They chose people who work and live in Western North Carolina and are young leaders. We will be staying with host families the entire trip and I will have the opportunity to work in universities, network, do service work, and learn about the culture and the language. We will be in the region of Rio Grande do Sul and the city of Porto Alegre, which is in the southern part of Brazil. I really hope to make some great connections for WCU, as well as broaden my knowledge of Brazilian culture.
Reporter: You sound very committed to service.
Nuñez: In the past, I worked with the Latino Advocacy Coalition, which is the main organization I’ve worked with over the years. This organization is the one that’s got my heart. I was the chair of their board of directors for four years, and I stepped down about a year ago. I currently volunteer with Leadership Asheville, and I sit on its board of directors. In the past, I’ve worked with the Mountain Area Information Network, which is an organization that hosts a local low-powered radio station in Asheville and does a lot of work with media advocacy. I also started the first Latino student-run organization at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, which at the time was called EPEC, which stands for El projecto de los estudiantes en la comunidad latina, or the students project in the Latino community, but now has joined forces with HOLA, which stands for Hermanos orgullosos en las americas, or proud sisters/brothers in the Americas. We created a bridge between the university and the Latino community, and we got involved in a lot of service projects in the community.
My volunteerism is a huge part of my work. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for a the great people and contacts I’ve made along the way through my community work. I started volunteering as a child with my mom. She would volunteer at an orphanage with our church, so the spirit of service has stayed with me my whole life, and it’s just an integral part of who I am and what I do. The spirit of volunteerism, service, and collaborating is something that affects me in all aspects of my life both professional and personal.
Reporter: What is your educational and work experience?
Nuñez: Well, I am a high school dropout. Later, I got my associate’s degree in arts in a transfer program from A-B Tech. Then, I got a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from UNCA, and my focus was Latin America in a global context. I got my master’s degree at WCU in public affairs this past May. As far as work experiences, I’ve had a lot of different work experiences, and I believe that’s because I work really hard and started working at such a young age. I was a server at Spirits on the River for seven years in Asheville, and then I started working with at-risk youth as an on-call worker at Eliada Homes. Then, I worked for a few years as the assistant project manager for a library outreach program across five WNC counties called the Bibliobus Project, and that ended in 2005. After that I worked for a national organization called Working Families Win as a community organizer, where I educated working families through grassroots and neighbor-to-neighbor communications about voting, their rights and holding elected officials accountable. Then finally I made it to WCU.
Reporter: What exactly do you do as assistant director of admission for WCU at A-B Tech?
Nuñez: I work with students to help them in the transfer process, and that includes a lot of things: applying to the school, signing up for orientation, picking classes, helping them with the overall process for admissions. I am there to help make the process easier for transfer students. I work as liaison between WCU and A-B Tech, working with the faculty, staff and programs. I build relationships daily, not only with WCU and A-B Tech, but also with the community. I go to some of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce events, and always wear my WCU hat to represent the institution.
The interesting thing is the position was fairly new when I started three years ago. There was one person in the position before me, but was only there for a few months. The position was approved to be full time, and I started with a blank slate, it’s a dynamic position that can change and grow as needed. So I am very open to possibilities and opportunities that WCU has to reach out to transfer students at A-B Tech and beyond. I think continuing to serve the needs of the students and the region, I have to become more knowledgeable about programs and articulation agreements, to ensure we offer the best service to the students. I’d also like to help WCU build initiatives and programs to serve the growing Hispanic population of our region.
Reporter: What inspired you to take the job?
Nuñez: Well, I like to say that this career path has chosen me. I believe finding WCU was a blessing for both sides, and this job was exactly what I was looking for. Western Carolina is just a really good match for me.
Considering my background, dropping out of high school and going through the transfer process, I have firsthand experience that helps me understand student needs and how to help. As we all go through life and experience hardships and rough times, there are still ways to succeed, and I feel that message needs to be passed on to the students. I’ve always liked working with others and helping others, and being a mentor and resource for students.
Reporter: What led you to create the Latino Student Resource Guide?
Nuñez: After seeing so many students frustrated and confused by the college application process, I just felt compelled to try and make the process easier. And what would make the process easier than to take all this information and resources and create one centralized website? That’s what this guide was created for. With the Latino students, the biggest difference is that a lot of students do not have adequate documentation. So this requires a different knowledge of the systems, both community colleges and universities. You have to have knowledge on issues such as what we allow and what we don’t allow, and how to apply for funding for education. Students need to be empowered with knowledge, and knowledge is power. So this guide helps to empower the students to achieve their goals by offering information to students, parents and administrators. Also with Latino students, you have to be aware of cultural and family differences from other students. I would love to see this resource guide be more widely used across the state.
Reporter: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with the WCU community?
Nuñez: Never give up, and go after your dreams!
This interview was conducted by WCU student Steven Younts and is printed in edited and condensed form.