The first in a five-part series honoring the 2020 NKyTribune NewsMakers
By Mildred Nguyen
Special at NKyTribune
Leo Calderón helps NKU students solve any problem they face, whether it is paperwork or money for gasoline. He attends demonstrations and rallies. He plays football and trains his grandson in this sport. He buys coffee for everyone in his office. And he will retire on January 1, 2022, after 35 years as director of Latino Student Initiatives at Northern Kentucky University.
“There is a time when it’s great to go ahead and move forward,” Calderón said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the end of my career. I plan to stay busy in the community and do other things that I always wanted to do.
There’s no shortage of ‘other things to do’ for Calderon, also founder of the Esperanza Center in Covington – and NKyTribune NewsMaker of 2021. He has long been NKY’s main advocate for this Latino community.
Calderón has been part of Latino Student Initiatives, formerly Latino Programs and Services, since its founding in spring 2001 under the tenure of NKU President James Votruba.
“How many universities do you know that have a Latin American student initiatives office? Calderon asked. “We have one at NKU, and we started serving 57 self-identified Latino students 20 years ago.”
According to Calderón, that number is now over 600. They include US-born students, permanent residents, undocumented immigrants and the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.
“Over the years, the community has learned that NKU is a friendly destination for those who wish to pursue higher education, and having bilingual and culturally competent people working in the office is essential to this success,” said Calderón.
He recalled a Latin college fair at the Su Casa Hispanic Center in Cincinnati to which he invited several universities in the Northern Kentucky and Greater Cincinnati region. When the admissions counselors from these universities arrived, they did not have any Spanish speaking representative.
“People can say, ‘It doesn’t matter, because the students who come to NKU speak fluent English, and they have to be fluent in English or they take English classes at NKU,” he said. declared Calderón. “But their parents, and some of these students, may not be fluent in English. This is why I believe that higher education has not met the needs of our students. There is a lot of work to be done to identify bilingual staff and administrators to better serve this growing community.
For Calderón, meeting the needs of emerging and marginalized communities is particularly important. Brought from Mexico to Chicago at the age of nine or ten, he grew up in a predominantly Mexican but ethnically diverse neighborhood where his best friend was a Polish immigrant.
In public primary and secondary schools, Calderón was an average student with little ambition for higher education. It was his high school math teacher who encouraged him to go to college. He then received a scholarship to attend Thomas More University, where he met his wife and had their first child. While completing a Masters in Public Administration at NKU, he started working as an executive assistant to Dr Leon Boothe, President of NKU from 1983 to 1996.
Under Calderón, Latino Student Initiatives has developed programs aimed at connecting students with the wider Latino community. For example, the office celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month with a lecture series on Latinos by inviting prominent Latino leaders as speakers. A former speaker is Dolores Huerta, civil rights activist and associate of famous union leader Cesar Chavez.
“What does it mean that we are not teaching the wonderful stories of so many people who have impacted the community? Calderón asked, incredulous that anyone doesn’t know who Cesar Chavez is. “Why do we want to go and teach this?” So we can influence the next generation – and make them believe that they could too. “
Calderón created the Latino Mentor Program (LAMP) in 2008 in partnership with Kroger based on an existing model of NKU ROCKS, a flagship program of the African American Student Initiatives. He realized that there is a strong correlation between student engagement and retention, as well as between engagement and graduation.
At the end of the year, a celebration is held to honor the students and their achievements. The event recognizes a distinguished Latin American mentor and mentee, students with the highest GPAs from each college, students with GPAs of 3.5 and above, graduates and fellows.
For Natalia Lerzundi, a former political science student who now coordinates LAMP, the program has had a big impact on her academic career.
“Thanks to LAMP, I have met a lot of people who are now very close to me and I have established a very good relationship. I had a huge support system throughout my time at NKU, ”Lerzundi said.
Calderón and Irene Encarnación, Spanish teacher at NKU, stressed the importance of community ties.
“The other day, I wasn’t in the office. Bonnie Meyer said: “Leo, someone came in and they asked to see an immigration lawyer,” Calderón recalls. “These are the kinds of needs they come to ask of you. This is why building trust in the community is so essential because this is how you make recommendations. “
According to Encarnación, Calderón ensures that students network with the wider community and have access to the help they need. By volunteering at a festival, for example, students meet leaders from the Latino community and learn about the culture. They would then be able to work in a diverse environment and find support upon graduation.
“People will help you make your dreams come true,” Encarnación said.
Calderón has organized events and participated in organizations beyond the NKU campus. In 2004, he, Encarnación and Dr Miriam Kannan, Professor Emeritus Regent of Biological Sciences at NKU, developed the Fun with Science Camp for Latino primary and secondary school students in the region.
“We never have Latino science students,” Kannan said.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, 15 students from the Covington School District have been invited to attend summer camp this year.
Ten or fifteen years ago, Calderón developed a spring break alternative for Mexican students after realizing that students often took the opportunity to study abroad. In partnership with the YMCA, pre-med students from NKU worked in a hospital to treat cleft palate. Two or three American students told Kannan that working with children from a different culture was the best experience they’ve ever had.
Twelve years ago, with a letter from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Calderón took about 20 students to Quito, Ecuador, to open a Freedom Station there. They visited the Trude Sojka Cultural House, a Holocaust memorial house-museum dedicated to Kannan’s mother, Trude Sojka, artist and Holocaust survivor, as well as tolerance and peace.
“There must have been 200 or 300 people who came to the opening,” Calderón said. “It was to promote peace and justice, and to help us better understand that we are all in the same boat.”
Calderón is shy about himself, but open and dedicated when it comes to everyone, Kannan said. He is the first Latino member of the Kentucky Board of Education, a member of the Red Cross and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a founding member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Esperanza Latino Center of Northern Kentucky.
“It seems to me that I often find myself joining boards and doing things,” Calderón said. “Sometimes I think it’s a hobby, but I like being part of it and making a difference.”
According to Encarnación, having a representative on these regional councils is crucial to meet the needs of the Latino community. Calderón influences politics not only through his position on councils and committees, but also by attending rallies and discussing politics at the state level.
“He will be there right in the middle [of a rally] surrounded by nuns, and they adore him, ”said Encarnación, referring to the different Catholic congregations with which Latino Student Initiatives works and who defend social justice.
Calderón always pushes students to be the best they can be, Lerzundi said. But his dedication to students sometimes goes beyond advocacy and professional assistance.
Encarnación recalled the days when he paid for students’ lunches, gasoline and books, when he was helping a student who was in trouble with the law, when he was rescuing another student who was stranded in the middle of the road.
” He gives. It’s open to everyone, ”Kannan said. “He will find a way to help you.
When asked what he would do after his retirement, Calderón said he would continue to work with Esperanza and the higher education sector, particularly on how the latter can provide effective services to the Latino community. He hoped to see more strategic planning and deliberate goals for diversity and inclusion in the region.
“What is needed is courage; and not just courage, but to be honest as we sit around the table and ask ourselves critical questions. Are these questions asked, I ask? They are not, ”Calderón said.
“I wish we were more determined to make things happen, because I think if we want to have a vibrant community, we have to go and show it.”
According to Calderón, protocols and strategic plans are needed to really make things happen.
“We have to celebrate it. We must reaffirm this. We have to quantify it, ”he said.
For Lerzundi, it would be intimidating to know what could change. Calderón has been in office for so long and has had such an impact that it is strange to see him go.
“NKU is special, and what makes it special are the people,” Calderón said. “At the end of the day, you see the impact we have on these students, and that’s what matters, so they keep coming back. At the end of the day, it’s not us, it’s them.
A gala organized on December 4 by the Esperanza Latino Center of the NKU Students’ Union will celebrate the retirement of Leo Calderón.
Mildred Nguygen is editor-in-chief of Northerner, NKU’s independent student newspaper. NKyTribune staff also contributed to this story.
You can also support the non-profit NKyTribune with your tax deductible contribution here. Until the end of the year, your contribution will be matched by NewsMatch and our sponsors.