Martha Villegas Miranda is the Latino Outreach and Retention Specialist in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA) at Joliet Junior College. She also works as an adjunct professor in social work at Lewis University.
Learn five facts about Villegas Miranda and her passion below:
Martha Villegas Miranda defines herself as “a story person.” That’s because she’s not always thinking about the statistics or data. But she can remember each and every one of her students by name – because it is the stories that they tell her about themselves, the stories that remind her all too well of her own childhood, that motivate her to come in to work everyday.
“I believe it’s my purpose and plan in life to work with students and their families, answer their questions, and help them make good, informed decisions about their educational journey,” she said. “I like to change how people see education, show them all the options, let them know I’m here to help, that education can be affordable and accessible, and that they can pursue their dreams. My job is not only about informing but empowering students, families and the community about post-secondary options and beyond.”
(2) Just like many of the students Villegas Miranda mentors at JJC, when she was young, she struggled with English as a language barrier in school.
The oldest in a family of five children with Mexican immigrant parents, Villegas Miranda had to be a role model for her younger siblings, so she became accustomed to pushing herself and trying hard at an early age. School was difficult as an English Language Learner (ELL), but she knew she had to keep going.
She struggled during elementary school, but because of her persistence, a teacher promoted her to honors classes in middle school, which set the path for her to be on a college track. After she graduated high school, she became the first person in her family to go to college. She navigated the college application and financial aid process on her own. This is part of the reason why she has decided to dedicate her career to assisting other first generation, Spanish speaking families by educating them about the differences of college between the U.S. and Latin America.
(3) Her high school guidance counselor first suggested a career in the hotel industry – but Villegas Miranda saw a different path for herself.
Knowing that she wanted to go to college, Villegas Miranda first made an appointment with her high school guidance counselor to learn about her college options. Her counselor suggested she work for the hotel industry because she could translate for them – but Villegas Miranda wanted more out of a career than just translating. She wanted to make a difference. Determined to work in politics and social justice, she applied for (and received) a Lewis University scholarship that would pay for the majority of her bachelor’s degree. After Lewis, she received another scholarship, this one giving her a full-ride to the University of Wisconsin for her master’s degree in social work.
“I like to say that I didn’t chose to work in higher ed – higher ed chose me,” she laughed. “I’m here because of the people who knew me and inspired me, and knew I would work well with college students who shared similar paths as mine. I strongly believe it’s important for students to see professionals in higher education who look like them, speak their language and know their culture in order to validate their experience in college and help them succeed and graduate.”
After working at Lewis for more than 10 years, she was offered a job in Chicago, as Director of Operations for the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute overseeing the operations of their student leadership series across 30 states. Although she enjoyed working nationally empowering thousands of youth towards a path of education, Villegas Miranda realized how much she missed her day-to-day interactions with students.
That’s when her current position opened up at JJC – and she has now been working at the college for nearly three years.
(4) She has been to Bolivia 16 times.
Villegas Miranda was first exposed to volunteering abroad in Bolivia as a student at Lewis University where she volunteered in low-income communities with street children, orphaned children, and within indigenous communities. For 10 years, she spent her entire summers (their winters because they are on the other side of the hemisphere) in Bolivia volunteering, backpacking and reinforcing her Spanish skills.
“As a Spanish speaking professional in the U.S., it’s important to maintain our Spanish skills by reading, writing and traveling to Spanish speaking countries,” Villegas Miranda added.
Volunteering and traveling to Bolivia is one of Villegas Miranda’s great passions because of its rich indigenous history, culture, and language.
(5) She will be pursuing her doctorate degree in the fall.
In the fall, Villegas Miranda will begin a new educational journey by pursuing her doctorate degree in Educational Leadership for Teaching and Learning at Lewis University, with concentrations in multicultural education, social/ political justice issues. She hopes this experience, which feels like a natural next step, will help her become a more transformative, social justice educator for students, families, and the community at JJC.
One thing is for sure – Villegas Miranda knows she’s exactly where she’s supposed to be.