In celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, we asked inspiring Latinx professionals to share their stories in their own words. Meet Joanna Rivera Davis, Assistant Director at the UConn Academic Achievement Center.
“Remember who you are” was something frequently said by my mom throughout my childhood. I grew up proud to be Puerto Rican. I am the middle child of loving parents, with an older sister and younger brother. My parents worked extremely hard to provide us with everything we needed. They also instilled in us the importance of family. Growing up we did everything, and I mean everything together. I have an amazingly large family with more cousins than I can even count. Weekends were (and still are) filled with family gatherings, like birthday parties, baby showers, anniversary celebrations, and the list can go on. My time with my family as a child reminded me of who I was and why I was proud to be Puerto Rican.
Attending college was something my parents encouraged. My first memories of being on a college campus were with my mother. She worked full-time as a case manager and attended evening classes in order to complete her bachelor’s degree. My dad worked in construction and was extremely supportive of my mom going to school. I have memories of playing hide and seek in the library on campus as she worked on her assignments. I remember her graduation day and how loud my dad, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins cheered for her as she walked across the stage. She was the first in our entire family to attend college. This accomplishment not only changed her life but had a huge impact on our family. We were all so proud of her, but it was not until I experienced college and becoming a mom myself that I truly appreciated her hard work and sacrifice.
When deciding on where to attend college my approach was to apply first, get accepted, and then go visit. I was certain I wanted to pursue a career in social work, wanted to be close, but not too close to home, and did not want to attend a large school. I went on a field trip during my senior year in high school to Eastern Connecticut State University shortly after finding out I was accepted. My mom drove up to campus after work and we took a formal tour. I knew then that Eastern was my going to be my new home.
Going to college was my first time being away from my family. I was able to live on campus and had a lot more freedom and independence. Finding my chosen family, my community, was my saving grace. I began exploring who I was and wanted to be. I was involved in OLAS (Organization for Latin American Students) on campus and met other Latinx students who became my life-long friends. My sophomore year, I became a Resident Assistant and was soon introduced to an undergraduate Fellows program offered through NASPA (National Association of Student Personnel Administrators). The goal of the program is to increase the number of historically disenfranchised and underrepresented professionals in student affairs and/or higher education. The four main components of the program included an on-campus mentorship, regional and national conference programming, paid summer internships, and a leadership institute. Participating in this Fellows program change my mind about social work and pursuing a career in higher education became my focus.
Having a mentor was critical to my growth as a student and future professional. The advisor of OLAS, the student organization I was a part of, Dr. Walter Diaz, became my role model and mentor. He challenged me to see my potential and pushed me out of my comfort zone. He took the time to get to know me and show me that people who looked like me should not settle. As part of my participation in the Fellows program, he hired me for a volunteer internship in Career Services. Dr. Diaz was the director at the time and served as my internship supervisor. My first day he called me into his office and I immediately went in. Before I could sit down, he sent me away and told me to never come into his office without a paper and pen. Lesson learned! Dr. Diaz was always professional, straightforward, and had clear (and high) expectations. His mentorship and tough love were the reasons why I pursued my graduate degree and a career in higher education. Having a mentor and being a mentor to others is something I am so grateful for. I always knew I wanted to help others and my mentor continues to be my advocate, motivator, and guide.
As we celebrate our Latinx heritage this month, my hope is that you 1) Remember who you are, and be proud to be Latinx 2) Find your Familia, both given and chosen families and communities for support, and 3) Engage with faculty & staff on campus, find a mentor and be a mentor to others.
I have worked in higher education for over 10 years and currently serve as the Assistant Director of Academic Support in the Office of First Year Programs, Learning Communities, and the Academic Achievement Center. In my role, I have the privilege of assisting students in attaining their academic and personal goals through the coordination of programs and services, which enhance student skill development and effective decision-making throughout their transition at UConn. I assist with the coordination of the UConn Connects Program, a volunteer mentor and academic intervention program, designed to provide students with the skills and support needed for academic and personal success. Prior to my work in the Academic Achievement Center, I worked in Student Support Services at UConn, as a Counselor providing first generation college and/or underserved student populations access, retention, and graduation services. Before UConn, I served as a Community Development Coordinator in Residence Life & Housing at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and a Master of Arts in Student Affairs in Higher Education. I am still in touch with my Eastern family often, including Dr. Diaz! I live in my hometown close to my large given family with my husband Donorae and two children, Gabriella and Joshua. We raise our kids to be proud of who they are, and both their Puerto Rican & Jamaican heritage. Si se puede and always remember who you are!