Celebrating Hispanic Excellence
Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the histories, cultures and contributions of Hispanic and Latinx Americans and their ancestors from the Caribbean, Central and South America, Mexico and Spain. President Lyndon Johnson first observed Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Twenty years later, the celebration became a month under President Ronald Reagan.
Celebrated from September 15 to October 15, the first day holds special significance because it’s the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively.
This year, we’re celebrating the contributions of Hispanic and Latinx community members, past and present.
- Dr. Ildaura Murillo-Rohde is one of the founders of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses who had a vision for improving nursing education for Latinos/as.
- Dr. Antonia Novello is a public health leader who became the first woman and Hispanic Surgeon General of the United States.
- Dr. Jane Delgado is a psychologist and first woman president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. She was also a major contributor to the 1985 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “Report of the Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health.”
- Antonia Pantoja is a social worker and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient who advocated for bilingual education.
- Xavier Becerra became the first-ever Latino to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.
- Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
- Born in Cuba, Alejandro Mayorkas became the first immigrant to lead Homeland Security.
- Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. She was also the first Hispanic director of the Johnson Space Center.
Here are some of the achievements of several Hispanic members of the Walden community who contribute to our student-centered learning environment and mission to effect positive social change.
Dr. Elizabeth Rivera-Rodriguez ’17
When she was 10, Dr. Elizabeth Rivera-Rodriguez knew she wanted to work with mothers and babies. After high school, that desire put her on the path to becoming a nurse. She went to school and worked fulltime to make her dream come true.
“I was the first generation in my family to go to college and achieve my terminal degree,” says Dr. Rivera-Rodriguez. “I never had a Latina role model to inspire me to further my education or career. I didn’t know that you could get to this place.”
This place is chief nursing officer and interim chief operating officer at one of the largest health centers in Connecticut. Getting there involved a love of lifelong learning, including earning her Doctor of Nursing Practice at Walden. She was reluctant, but her best friend, who recommended the program, reminded her that the profession needed more Latinas with doctorates. Now, she shares that path with others.
“I taught at a university with a lot of minority students, a lot of Latinas, and they would say ‘Dr. Rodriguez, I didn’t know we could do this,’” she says. “Being a role model has been my greatest personal satisfaction.”
Dr. Rodriguez has also served as president of the Connecticut Association of Public Health Nurses and is secretary on the board of directors of the Professional Black Nurse Alliance. She is active in the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing’s education committee and has presented to the Walden chapter about leveraging local partnerships to increase COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Every day is about social change to me,” she says. “I don’t have this grandiose idea that I can solve the problem, but if I can contribute a little piece to a solution and it keeps growing from there, that can lead to a lot of change.”
Dr. Yitza Arcelay-Rojas
Dr. Yitza Arcelay-Rojas teaches one of the first courses in the PhD in Health Education and Promotion program and a later course that prepares students to begin their dissertation. She also serves on several dissertation committees. That gives her a unique view into her students’ education journey.
“I have high expectations for my students,” says Dr. Rojas. “I push them to give their best, and I have seen a lot of growth in them. It is very rewarding at the end to see how much they have learned in the process.”
One of those students nominated her for the College of Health Professions’ Faculty Excellence Award, which she won earlier this year. They wrote that “Dr. Rojas is one of the most fully engaged professors I have ever had. She keeps me connected with my why and engaged in my purpose.”
Dr. Rojas has long known that her purpose was to focus on health, science and education.
“Through health, I know that I can contribute to the betterment of society and communities,” she says. “I have had a philosophy of resilience since I was a little girl coming from a low-income community in Puerto Rico and having an opportunity to go to a university.”
She started on a path toward becoming a medical doctor but found that education was her true passion.
“I found a master’s degree in public health education, which was the perfect combination of my two passions,” says Dr. Rojas. “Education can make great changes not only in people’s physical health, but also their social and emotional health. We study health because we care about others. Health brings social change. I see both health and social change as intrinsically intertwined.”
Dr. Stefanie Gatica
Dr. Stefanie Gatica is a passionate educator and successful entrepreneur. At Walden, she is academic coordinator for the Master of Science in Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) program and co-chair of the College of Nursing’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. In Des Moines, she is also the owner of a dermatology clinic and spa. Her interest in dermatology began in childhood.
“I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and people always commented on the color of my skin,” says Dr. Gatica. “I was the one brown person in town because I was adopted. Skin difference and skin care interested me way back then.”
She connected dermatology to her profession as a nurse when a close friend had a melanoma misdiagnosed. Six months later, her friend died at only 40 years old. That motivated Dr. Gatica to complete a residency with a prominent dermatologist.
Her clinic focuses on aesthetics and medical dermatology, and she is always on the lookout for moles that don’t look right. They are often on the back or lower legs for women and on the scalp or back for men. Although they can be small on the surface of the skin, like a pencil eraser, they can be quite large under the skin.
A born educator, she grew up giving swimming lessons and then worked in teaching hospitals. In Walden’s College of Nursing, much of her focus is on increasing diversity in the curriculum, most recently in patient scenario simulations. Outside the university, she works with hospitals to create opportunities for healthcare professionals to go from being “textbook trained” in dermatology to having patient experience. This is especially important if they practice with underserved populations or in rural areas where they might be the only one who can spot a deadly melanoma.
Dr. Alina Perez
Dr. Alina Perez first fell in love with psychology in a high school advanced placement course. Her plan to be a doctor turned toward psychiatry, but the college courses that engaged her the most were in psychology.
“As I got deeper into the topic and field, I found myself fascinated,” says Dr. Perez. “I wanted to understand human behavior and do evaluations, assessments and therapy.”
She earned a master’s in forensic psychology and worked for the Florida Department of Corrections and Florida Department of Children and Families, as well as the courts. A doctorate in clinical psychology exposed her to the breadth of the field and led to the opportunity to teach, including online at the University of Liverpool. There, she became program director for its health and life sciences programs. That exposed her to students and faculty around the world. Now, the daughter of Cuban immigrants is leveraging that experience as a program director in Walden’s School of Psychology, including work on a multicultural psychology curriculum and diversity and inclusion efforts.
“The typical clinical psychology program is very traditional in a campus-based format,” says Dr. Perez. “There is no flexibility. If you are a working mother, how do you balance that? Is it fair to exclude that group of people because they can’t meet that rigid setup for the program? Walden’s mission of social change is about offering opportunities to a diverse group that might not otherwise have that opportunity. Through education, a lot of different doors can open for people.”
Dr. Floralba Arbelo
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as the child of Puerto Rican immigrants, Dr. Floralba Arbelo saw education as a way out of poverty and to help others. Today, she has 15 years of experience in higher education and a scholar-practitioner’s focus on student success, particularly in underserved populations.
“I’m a Latina, and I look at the data all the time,” says Dr. Arbelo. “There are not many of us with doctorates or in higher education administration, so I value what I’ve been able to achieve and want to give back.”
After completing a fellowship in nonprofit management at The New School in New York, she went to Puerto Rico to launch the Caribbean’s first graduate degree program in nonprofit management. Now, she is dean of student affairs at Albizu University’s Miami campus and a contributing faculty member in Walden’s Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, where she serves on doctoral committees as a university research reviewer.
“We are the gatekeepers of doctoral student research,” she says. “We make sure that students’ proposals and dissertations adhere to Walden’s rigor at key points in the process.”
In July, her work on the committee of an award-winning doctoral study earned her a Rita Turner Award, named for one the university’s founders.
“Dr. Brian Martin’s doctoral study, Qualitative Evaluation of a Hospital-Based Preceptor-Guided Clinical Orientation, was one of the best I’ve ever read,” says Dr. Arbelo, citing the quality, depth of analysis and links between theory and practice.
Dr. Arbelo likes the university reviewer role because it keeps her connected to the latest research. She leverages her own research into student persistence in her student affairs role at Albizu.
“A lot of my work is on minority populations, specifically Hispanic nontraditional students online and on campus,” she says. “I am practicing what I studied and applying frameworks I developed. When we’re helping students, we’re helping a family and a community. I’m here to help students achieve their goals because they’re going to go out and change their community.”
Dr. Salvador Gonzalez
Dr. Salvador Gonzalez, contributing faculty member in the College of Management and Technology, believes you can control your destiny. As a high school student in Mexico, he earned Cs and Ds — too low to be accepted at a university. Although he wanted to stay in his home country, he boarded a plane for Chicago, Illinois, and met his family there. Within days, his older brothers got him a job washing cars and enrolled him in college. He took math courses because they didn’t require much English.“I thought I could only get low grades, but when I applied myself and started to get As, I developed a desire to learn,” he says.
Math classes led him to accounting, and accounting led him to a job in accounts payable at Ford, which helped him pay his way through college. Soon, he went from washing cars to driving a new Ford Cougar. That’s when he knew accounting would be his career. That career included internal audits where he was a hero for saving his organization millions of dollars. Accounting also took him to Spain, Venezuela, Thailand and his native country, Mexico.
Those successes and a desire to do more led him to graduate school at Northwestern University. With an MBA from a top-ranked program, Dr. Gonzalez joined the Center for Economic Progress. There he became a national authority on federal income tax issues affecting low-income Americans. Dr. Gonzalez also served as board chair of the Youth Service Project, a community organization that helps young people and families in Chicago overcome challenges.
He then earned a Doctor of Business Administration degree and began teaching at Walden in 2010. Dr. Gonzalez brings his wealth of career experiences to his courses along with a belief in empowering students the way he did employees.
“I give them everything that I know so that they are enriched with information and knowledge.”
Emily Richman ’16
Emily Richman thought she wasn’t smart enough to earn a master’s degree. Education was important to her family in rural Richland, Washington, but the women in her life didn’t have degrees. No one had an advanced degree.
When her mother died at just 54, Richman feared she could die young, too. To make every day meaningful, she set aside her doubts and pursued her dream of becoming a therapist. Exactly a year later, Richman started the MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. She graduated in 2016 and walked in commencement.
“It was a huge accomplishment for me, and I cried the whole time,” she says. “My life is 100 percent better after going to grad school. Confidence-wise and ability-wise, I am a completely different person. Getting my degree created a pathway to where I am now, which is fully in private practice. I’m my own boss.”
Richman also credits her background in theater and as a standup comic with her success in counseling.
“When you are an actor, your job is to understand a character enough to portray them to an audience to help elicit emotions,” she says. “I feel like as a counselor my job is to help understand who my client is to help them figure out what’s best for them.”
One unexpected result of attending Walden was learning about her Hispanic heritage. Prompted by course discussions on social justice and cultural competency, she asked her family about their roots. Family stories and history weren’t passed down, and she discovered that her maternal grandmother was Mexican. Working farms in Wyoming, her grandparents had faced discrimination, and she learned that her grandmother didn’t speak Spanish outside the house. However, her grandmother often passed as White, and even had that appear on her driver’s license.
“Without Walden, I would have never discovered my heritage.”
Dr. Joseline Castaños ’16
Dr. Joseline Castaños believes in sharing the power of education. Growing up in the Dominican Republic, her first language was Spanish. Because they share the island with Haiti, she also learned French. The schools taught English, and her passion for languages led her to study Italian and Portuguese later in life.
After a five-year separation from her mother, who worked in the U.S. as a nanny and housekeeper, she emigrated to join her. At the University of Maryland, College Park, she earned dual degrees in languages and secondary education. She taught high school Spanish, French and Italian, but what she loved most was teaching English as a second language. Working in higher education, she applied her passion for languages to help an English language program grow from four institutions to 26 and 7,000 students to over 100,000. Some participants used their new English proficiency to enroll in dual degree programs with Walden.
“English is very important around the world,” Dr. Castaños says. “The impact on those students and their families is tremendous.”
Dr. Castaños is now Walden’s executive director of product management for the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership. She focuses on ensuring programs remain relevant so that they attract and retain educators who can make a difference for their students. In addition to more than 20 years of professional experience, she brings her perspective as a graduate of Walden’s PhD in Education program.
A lifelong learner, Dr. Castaños is now completing an MS in Human Services at Walden. She wants to improve her advocacy for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She serves on their board for Howard County in Maryland, facilitates support groups, teaches classes and leads outreach with a focus on the Hispanic population.
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