A Conversation with Caesar Valentin: Creating Community-Driven, Sustainable Impact

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Caesar Valentin, CLAS ‘20, and discuss his education, career goals, involvement, and his background, and culture. His message of finding a connection to the communities around him, investing in long-lasting change, and stimulating sustainable growth is to be celebrated.

Clarice Pennock: How did you decide what major program and career path you wanted to pursue?

Caesar Valentin: I went to UConn for my undergrad, studying political science and philosophy with a minor in human rights. For a while, I was up in the air about what I wanted to do, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get a Ph.D., go to law school, get a job in a nonprofit, or work in the government, but then I learned about the Fast Track program for the department of Public Policy. I looked up UConn’s MPA and MPP programs and saw that they have really good rates of employment, then I saw a lot of graduates going into positions at nonprofits, in the public sector, and in public-private partnerships – which was exciting for me, because I was leaning towards the public sector. I applied and got in, and not too long after, I found out about a new program with El Instituto, a joint Master of Public Administration and International Relations. I said, “Why not?”; if I got into both, I would walk out of the program with two Masters, completely paid for. I met with El Instituto, who I already had a great relationship with because of my involvement with PRLACC [Puerto Rican Latin American Cultural Center], and they encouraged me to apply. I got into both programs, and that’s where I am now! I’m hoping afterward to work with the State of Connecticut, maybe one of the cities throughout the State, or another nongovernmental organization in the public sector. I’ve also thought about labor relations, making sure that people get fair wages, union representation, and workers’ rights – I wouldn’t mind working in that realm as well.

CP: How did your involvement on campus influence your professional development?

CV: PRLACC definitely led me to pursue my program with El Instituto, I was one of the coordinators on the Latinx Student Leadership Council, and we would occasionally do things with El Instituto. Towards the end of my undergrad, one of my friends was doing a lot of work with El In[stituto] and Anne Gebelein, about Black and Brown education in K-12 in Connecticut. I reached out to them and took the intro course for LLAS 5000 my senior year, where I formed a really good connection with Samuel Martínez, the department head. Sam, Anne, and Fany, the director of PRLACC, all said they thought I would be a good fit for the program. Other advisors and professors, I had taken Latino Studies courses with encouraged me to as well!

CP: What position are you currently working in, and what roles have you previously held? How did you find those opportunities?

CV: As of now, I am the Social Justice intern for the Connecticut Office of the Arts. The Department of Public Policy has this thing called the IPP program, where they have all their students complete a professional internship for the completion of the program, and they have you apply to a bunch of different organizations, allowing whichever organization likes you to choose you. Since I started, I’ve been working to put together a collective impact initiative for the State, to try and contain different stakeholders and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline through art. Whether connecting with different organizations to bring them out of their silos, helping them develop programs, or facilitating that network of professionals and taking out that middleman, serving as a central hub. Granted, COVID-19 has made that very difficult, as you know. Broadway is closed, almost all of our favorite TV shows got put on hiatus, and video games have been delayed. And it’s had a really big impact – many of our budding programs had to be paused at the beginning of the pandemic and are just now starting to get back into the swing of things. Even trying to partner with schools has been difficult. However, this has taught me how to deal with the unexpected, having to figure out what to do, ways to navigate, and still produce. It has posed a challenge, but I have enjoyed this opportunity.

During my undergrad, I was involved in the 2019 Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps. That was really cool, I did a lot of professional development and made a lot of connections. I got to meet a lot of different people doing similar types of work in the Hartford area, and it got picked up by the UConn magazine! [Read about Caesar and his involvement with the Obama Foundation here].

CP: What academic projects or research have you been involved with over the course of your time at UConn?

CV: As of now, I’m working on some research with Dr. Charles Venator-Santiago on the congressional status of Puerto Rico and claims to whether the island will be able to get citizenship, what the United States have been leaning towards, and what the likelihood of that happening is. I’ve also been doing some research about the Taíno Revival Movement with him, examining the different varying perspectives. Maybe that will be part of my thesis, who knows!

CP: Talk to us about your background. How has your culture informed your perspective and your career goals?

CV: My background and culture has really motivated me to do something in the public sector and give back to the community. Even at UConn, I didn’t have a Latino professor until my sophomore year when I started studying Puerto Rican politics, and I’ve had less than five professors of color total. I only really got multiple Latinx professors as I started pursuing Latino studies as a field. Growing up in school the only teachers that I had that were Latino were Spanish teachers. You know, it’s awesome to have them but also they’re only in those fields. I have a couple of friends pursuing education and it’s great to see people who look like us in those roles, really educating the community, because a lot of the time in schools your teachers are generally white.

One of the reasons I got interested in the public sector was because I wanted to be able to know that going to work, I’m doing something that’s benefitting people. That’s one of the things I really liked about this position with the Office of the Arts because everything I’ve been doing, I’m conscious of the work and how it’s going to impact the community. It’s cool because a lot of the tenets I learned in the Obama Foundation are the things I’ve been doing in this role too, emphasizing community-driven sustainable impact. Working with the community means you’re helping them build their own solutions, not voluntourism – you build a house once and never come back. I would rather work to better the community as my 9-5.

CP: What do diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you in the workplace?

CV: In practice, I think it’s a super important thing. We do need to be conscious of how diversity and inclusion are utilized, but I also think we need to be careful that we’re not just slapping a diversity label on things. I would like to see more being done with the ODI (Office for Diversity and Inclusion), specifically more funding toward the cultural centers that are showcased so frequently but are underfunded.

I think it happens far too often where we say “We have diversity here!” and UConn, for example, has done it in negative ways and will tokenize students and faculty. They’ve also done it in many positive ways where they have shown the accomplishments of students of different backgrounds and their professors, and demonstrated that they are trying to create avenues for people of various cultures. It’s a very fine line between creating someone a training program to click through and actually having conversations where people can make mistakes and have the opportunity to learn from them. If we’re not fostering real growth, we’re just putting a bandaid on the problem. I don’t see a point to diversity, equity, and inclusion unless we’re going to do it the right way.  

CP: What do you consider to be your greatest achievement so far?

CV: I did really bad my freshman year – I finished off freshman year with a 2.6 GPA, and I graduated with 3.45 cumulative GPA. My major GPAs were 3.6 for Political Science and 3.9 for Philosophy. I went from doing terrible my freshman year to getting into two graduate programs, and I think that’s a huge accomplishment considering I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it through university. I was able to turn everything around and figure out why I wanted to be in school. It was very difficult, but I think it was why I was able to do as well in the future.

That first year I didn’t have a good academic/social safety net. I was still developing friendships in La Comunidad, which is the Latinx Learning Community, and they supported me but I didn’t have professors and academic support telling me I could do these things. I did really well in high school and came to college and did really badly, so I just said “I guess it was a fluke!” But what I really needed was an adult to say, “No, it wasn’t a fluke – you just had a rough start.”  I took the summer to reflect and I told myself I wasn’t going to waste my time. Fany Hannon, Jennifer Morenus, and Jennifer Cheng gave me that support; they showed me that I could do this.

CP: Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for students who are looking to explore career paths, or get involved with the Latinx community on campus?

CV: If you’re looking to find your Latinx community, I would definitely recommend going to PRLACC, and look at all the different clubs and cultural organizations. Last I remember, there were about 20. Also, get involved with your academic community. If you’re a history nerd, reach out to the History department. You will find people that you like talking to, and you might even be surprised that UConn’s History department has a really strong Latin American background, intellectually, and they’ve done a lot of research on Latin America. El Instituto is also a great place, the faculty are awesome. I’m a little biased, but I’ll be there in the fall so if anyone wants to come and talk to me, you’re welcome to. 

Be willing to make friends and know that it’s fun to branch out and look for different people and different groups. You can find those connections that you wouldn’t think you’d be friends with, and could be your best friends. 

If you’d like to contact Caesar, you can connect with him on LinkedIn. Visit our Latinx Affinity Community at https://career.uconn.edu/channels/latinx/ to read additional success stories.

By Clarice Pennock
Clarice Pennock Career Intern