Graduate students in Higher Ed discover natural fits, futures in on-campus work

Kayce Fuentes, Ashlyn Straka and Ana Velazquez
Kayce Fuentes, Ashlyn Straka and Ana Velazquez

Kayce Fuentes, Ashlyn Straka and Ana Velazquez shared a common ambition as undergraduates – careers that would allow them to help others – but divergent paths.

Fuentes holds a bachelor’s in Human Services. Straka completed hers in Human Development and Family Studies. Velazquez earned hers in Public Health Education.

Yet all three came to the same, and unexpected, realization in the pursuit of those degrees: that their professional futures lie in Student Affairs work at colleges and universities.

The trio are enrolled in the Department of Counseling and Higher Education’s M.S.Ed. in Higher Education and Student Affairs program and already serving NIU students as graduate assistants.

“I like to say that I am the hall director’s right-hand man – or woman,” says Fuentes, who is the graduate hall director at Northern View Community. “I create programming for the whole community. I advise and guide our current community advisers, and meet one-on-one with them every other week.”

Straka serves the same role at Gilbert Hall as she supervises her staff and advises the community council.

“Our community advisers live on their floors, directly interacting with all of our residents, putting on educational programs to get to know them, building that sense of community for student living in Gilbert,” she says. “I support them in that and in their personal development.”

Velazquez, meanwhile, is a graduate research assistant at NIU’s Office of Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (ADEI).

Her work includes reviewing campus operations to ensure they remain committed to ADEI’s goals, creating related programming and comparing NIU’s various websites devoted to social justice with others as she seeks ways to improve institutional effectiveness.

“I like being able to dissect our thought processes surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion because we don’t necessarily learn about that while we are growing up,” Velazquez says. “Now we’re starting to learn more things – and, being in this field, learning a lot but also understanding it.”

October is Careers in Student Affairs Month

NIU Campus Life Building
NIU Campus Life Building

Sponsored by NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, the annual celebration of Careers in Student Affairs Month also is dedicated to education and awareness in the profession and engagement with professional associations and peers in the field.

Goals of the month include opportunities to reflect on individual journeys and experiences, professional development and cultivation of spaces for dialogue related to pertinent topics.

At NIU, the month included a graduate colloquium, an M.S.Ed. informational session and a lunch-and-learn event.

Upcoming programming:

‘I want to be the next Lauren Teso-Warner’

Kayce Fuentes
Kayce Fuentes

Growing up in suburban Homer Glen, Fuentes originally planned to become a social worker.

While at Millikin University, however, the first organization she joined on campus was the Residence Hall Association.

“I fell in love with doing residential programming, working with my hall and just the ins-and-outs of housing,” she says. “After undergraduate, I knew I wanted to somehow be in Student Affairs and housing but didn’t apply for grad school. I just needed a little more time to land on my feet and become a little more centered before I threw myself into another program.”

That came at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

Fuentes was employed as a community worker, serving as a liaison between high school seniors, high school guidance counselors and college admissions counselors.

Her duties included teaching students about the FAFSA and financial aid and helping them to apply for those dollars and for college admission itself.

“While I was doing that, I had a thought: ‘Where am I really sending my students?’ Then, I realized that I really, truly missed seeing the outcomes and helping students develop in a more extended amount of time than the 15 minutes I would get with them between their homeroom and lunch,” she says. “I am much more interested in outcomes and actually helping students to get degrees.”

Now, her goal is to become a director of student housing and residential life.

Kayce Fuentes
Kayce Fuentes

“At Millikin, I wanted to be the next Paul Lidy. Here, I want to be the next Lauren Teso-Warner,” says Fuentes, who will graduate in May 2023.

“I believe you do the most learning by doing, and in the classroom, you’re really just listening. It’s when you come home – home to your residence hall – that you have to make your own decisions,” she adds. “That interaction with other people is really the core of what college is: advocating for yourself. That all happens in your residence hall.”

Fuentes also has enjoyed opportunities to apply her coursework to her role at Northern View, especially College Student Development Theory, and appreciates the commitment to social justice.

“Our program is pretty relevant to the times, and Student Affairs needs to remain relevant if it really wants to help students,” she says. “College students want to see change, and they now have the agency to promote change – and that change comes from social justice.”

‘I kind of think of them as a little family’

Ashlyn Straka
Ashlyn Straka

When Straka arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, the first-generation college student had “absolutely no idea of what I was doing.”

But she had a goal.

“I really loved living on campus my first year,” says Straka, who grew up in Reedsburg, Wis., where the entire population is not much more than the UW-SP’s total enrollment.

“It was my first time being away from home, I didn’t know anybody and I just had to figure it out and make friends on my own,” she adds. “During my second week of school, they were talking about the residence hall leadership team. I had told myself that, ‘When you get to college, you’re going to get involved and you’re going to find something you’re interested in.’ I was very determined to do that.”

Straka found her place with that group, and soon began also attending meetings of the campus-wide Residence Hall Association.

“I ended up falling in love with that,” she says. “It gives you a really great sense of community, and that was I something I enjoyed. It’s just a really unique opportunity for students to engage on the campus.”

Turning that experience into her life’s work wasn’t planned.

“I got into this because I randomly stumbled upon it. People said, ‘You can do this as a career,” and I was like, ‘Really?’ ” she says. “I was really involved in my undergrad, and super-enjoyed it. Involvement was a huge passion of mine. During sophomore year, I made the decision that I was very interested in pursuing a degree in higher ed, but there isn’t a really great undergraduate degree for student affairs.”

Ashlyn Straka
Ashlyn Straka

Her staff in Gilbert numbers only six – last year, in Neptune, she supervised around 20 community advisers – which provides close relationships.

“I have the unique opportunity to know my students on a deeper level,” says Straka, who will graduate in May 2022. “We just talk about life, and I get to know them through that. We get more chances to interact with each other and to be a part of each other’s lives. It’s fun, and I kind of think of them as a little family.”

Straka plans to stay in student housing and residential life work after she completes her degree in the spring.

“I have a fun role being a part of their day-to-day lives,” she says. “I like hearing about their little successes.”

‘A wake-up call’

Programming under the Student Affairs umbrella is far more than the direct services such as food, housing, organizations and advocacy.

Velazquez is learning that firsthand as she works with Monique Bernoudy, assistant vice president for Academic Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at NIU.

Ana Velazquez
Ana Velazquez

The office, led by Chief Diversity Officer Vernese Edghill-Walden, strives to improve access, retention and completion for all students and to uphold the NIU mission to value “a community of diverse people, ideas, services, and scholarly endeavors in a climate of respect for the intrinsic dignity of each individual.”

It’s a mission that resonates with Velazquez, who enjoyed a summer internship with Sandy Lopez, coordinator for Undocumented Student Support.

“Being able to look at diverse student populations, and historically excluded populations, and seeing those students’ experiences, and how we can better those experiences at NIU, has been a wake-up call,” says Velazquez, who graduates in May 2022.

She thinks about the HESA 502: Equity, Diversity, and Social Justice in Higher Education course.

“We learned about the history of how higher education came to be in America, and I think that the hardest thing to learn – but also the most motivating piece of information to keep doing this work – was the dark history of higher education that no one talks about, of it historically not being for BIPOC individuals,” she says.

“I’m seeing not how far we’ve come but that there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, because these individuals still are not recognized or valued on campus or seen as resources,” she adds. “I know. I’ve been in their shoes. It motivates me to advocate for them and to give them the resources I didn’t know I had.”

Helping the Black, Indigenous, People of Color population has always been the goal, however.

Raised in suburban Mundelein, Velazquez attended Bradley University to prepare for a career in medicine.

Ana Velazquez
Ana Velazquez

“Originally, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, so I went into a biochemistry major. It was just not for me,” she says, “so I went into public health because I wanted to learn about the disparities between all ethnicities and races in access to good health care, and what that looks like behind the scenes, even in school health program, such as nutrition and food deserts, and how no one realizes it or is passing laws against it.”

She worked with a wellness company but wasn’t happy there, leading her to take a job at a community college – and to find her true path.

“What I realized is that I missed being in the college setting, doing a lot of ‘unlearning’ and unpacking,” she says. “Now I would like to work in a cultural center or in diversity, equity and inclusion and, if not in higher education, to do some grassroots, community organizing.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email