I found my passion for doing hands-on work with vulnerable populations back in college at Cornell University, where I studied social work as an undergraduate. That’s when it hit me that many of the problems I witnessed were rooted in structural and legal issues. Though my original passion for social work shaped my life’s mission, I decided I could make more of a difference pursuing law.
In law school at the University of Pennsylvania, I didn’t concentrate my studies to only one area. I set out to take advantage of every opportunity and learn as much as I could. At the start of my career, I practiced various areas of law, which taught me how to make informed decisions and use good judgment.
A few years after graduating from law school, I taught legal writing at Villanova University’s law school, and eventually expanded to include a diverse course load as a law professor at Brooklyn Law School. I found working with students to be inspiring, and beyond that, felt a responsibility to my law school community to make an impact. At Brooklyn Law School, I tried on various hats but eventually transitioned into associate dean of student affairs, where I found my stride. I loved contributing to the education and personal growth of so many different people. Because Brooklyn is an independent law school, I was able to master the details of a variety of student needs, such as financial aid, health services, and housing. Not a lot of law professors have that opportunity.
In 2005 I joined the founding team of Drexel University School of Law and became the associate dean of student affairs there. By serendipity, I served as the acting dean in the first year of the school’s existence. Building a law school from the onset proved to be extremely challenging. There were weeks I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Fortunately, we had a great team in place and a wonderful founding faculty, so my efforts always felt supported.
When a permanent dean was hired at Drexel, I felt the desire to continue utilizing my skills to make a lasting impact at another law school. I was hired as dean of Northern Illinois University (NIU) in 2009. I was thrilled to be at a school where I could immerse myself, get involved, and really make a difference. The law school at NIU, like other law schools, resembles a mini university integrated within a larger institution. We have our own admissions process, career services, public relations, and IT support. I’m able to keep my hands in a lot of projects at once.
At NIU Law, I am focusing my efforts on three priorities: I’m expanding experiential learning opportunities for faculty and students, building collaborations in the community, and committing to enhancing student success. Enhancing student success can be achieved by improving our bar-pass and job-placement rates, while finding new ways to keep the program affordable. I also serve as a resource expert and frequently speak and create presentations on issues such as diversity and implicit bias.
As a minority leader, I’m in a powerful position to be an advocate for Latinos coming into the field of law. I’m one of only four Latina deans in the country, and I believe I have a responsibility to defy stereotypes while educating others about the harm of structural racism. It’s important to be a role model and maintain a visible profile that others can emulate. I mentor young Latino and Latina faculty, meet individually with students, and work collaboratively with Latino organizations. I don’t want anyone in the NIU community to feel as isolated as I did in my first years as a Latina student and professor.
As a leader, I try to be transparent and honest with all constituencies. I make sure I’m accessible, and my door is always open. I harness my energy into figuring out what gifts, talents, and skills other people have and bringing out the best in them.
Effectuating change that is long-lasting and transformational is a challenge for us all. It takes a lot of buy-in and support to improve institutions and change hearts and minds. The most rewarding part of my job is seeing that change happen.
I had 20 years of training going into being an effective dean. Today, nothing surprises me or feels like an unsolvable problem. I always remind myself that being a dean is primarily a service position. You have to be a mentor and a role model, but you are also responsible for taking care of all business factions. Part of being a leader is finding a balance. Ultimately, I want NIU Law to be recognized for its core values of community, responsibility, diversity, access, and experiential learning.