This story is part of a continuing series that features Hispanic leaders at USF during Hispanic Heritage Month.
The smell of a fresh, homemade meal often greeted Neudy Carolina Nuñez after school when she was younger. The meal, which her mom prepared to make sure Nuñez and her five siblings could focus on their school work, reflected her rich Venezuelan roots and her family’s values of education as they started a new chapter in America.
Nuñez migrated to the U.S. with her family in 1991 and settled in Yonkers, New York. The main goals, she said, were to start building a new life and, consequently, fulfilling her mother’s goal of helping Nuñez go to college in the U.S.
“One value my mom really pressed for us was education. It was non-negotiable for me, as I knew by the age of 11 that I was going to go to college because, given our backgrounds and why we came to the United States, our goal was to get a college education,” Nuñez said.
“I was always a very good and a very disciplined student, and my mom always invested in my education as she was a stay-at-home mom. She was a babysitter, and she chose to work hard at home.”
Just the way Nuñez’s mother made sure she did all she could to build the best life for her kids, she is applying those same values to her new position as assistant dean of the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA), which she is set to begin Oct. 5.
“I want the students that interact with me, or connect with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, to have no doubt that our primary focus is their success,” she said.
“I hope they can trust me through how they get to know me and they can trust that ultimately I’ve accepted this position to serve them. I am committed to serving them with integrity, leadership and passion.”
In seventh grade, Nuñez discovered an early passion for social and racial justice from reading Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The book, as well as her passion for education, continuously shaped Nuñez’s aspirations and identity in her community.
Major African American and Afro-Caribbean political and literary figures ultimately inspired Nuñez’s life of advocating for others and highlighting diverse voices.
“Over time, and because I loved [Angelou’s] writing so much, that was the gateway to exploring other writers, such as Toni Morrison, Roxane Gaye and Audre Lorde,” Nuñez said.
“All of these women helped me connect myself to my identity as a woman and as a marginalized member of our society. Seeing how they were able to prove resilience and turn their suffering and challenges into great works of art inspired me.”
Nuñez’s constant dedication toward bringing diversity and inclusivity to all the places she has touched, as well as standing up to the injustices around her, were key personality traits she developed from a young age. While Nuñez was heavily influenced by the values of her family, her sister, Johanny Nuñez, said she was a role model in how to stand up for herself.
“When we first arrived in the U.S. from Venezuela, we started school in Yonkers, where we stood out because of our language barrier. I remember when we were 5 and 6 years old, we were in the cafeteria having lunch and this other girl bullied us and threw a banana peel toward us and began to mock us in English,” Johanny said.
“I felt horrible and began to cry, but Neudy stood up for both of us and told me to not cry or be scared and to completely ignore her. She made sure I was OK and that I wasn’t affected by the girl who was bullying us.”
Leadership is something that comes naturally to Nuñez, and her personable and moralistic characteristics stretch far beyond the workplace, she said. With something as simple as standing up to a school bully, Johanny admired Nuñez’s presence as a leader who can reach those in her personal life as well, reflecting that her actions aren’t just a facade for a resume but rather rooted in the familial values she lives by.
When Nuñez started her freshman year at Florida International University (FIU) in 2005 to complete her bachelor’s in English and minor in mass communications, she purposely read writers of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and African American writers to expand her knowledge around social justice and inclusion.
“I just became very intrigued by that, and quickly realized that regardless of what I did with my life, I would want to start in a capacity where I would be an advocate for others,” she said.
Nuñez said while her whole family has been an inspiration to her growing up, her grandmother, Yolanda Campos Manzanilla, left an immense impact on her by being the reason she could focus on education and literary knowledge.
“My grandmother, who is on my Venezuelan side, is the person who taught me how to read. I learned how to read when I was a year and a half [old], and by the time I was 3, I was reading the newspaper. That’s just because education is such a value that my Venezuelan grandmother took every moment of her day that I was [with her] on the weekends to make me curious about learning,” she said.
Manzanilla passed away when Nuñez was a junior at FIU. The months following her death were challenging, she said, as she was one of her biggest influences and supporters.
“She supported me because she believed in me and she always made me feel that there was nothing that I couldn’t do if I was willing to work for it and learn,” Nuñez said.
The persistence she learned from her grandmother helped Nuñez start her career in higher education at Boston College as a resident director, and Nova Southeastern University and Old Dominion University, where she had a hard time building relationships due to a lack of understanding around her Latin culture in leadership environments.
“The challenge for me wasn’t the role but it was the environment and the lack of community which further empassioned me to continue to advocate for disability, specifically among Latinx people, but to continue to take challenging conversations as opportunities for education,” Nuñez said.
“That’s something that I created over the two years that I was [at USF] before arriving in Tampa at USF.”
For the past six years, Nuñez has worked as the program director for both Academic Initiatives and Living Learning Communities in Housing and Residential Education at the Tampa campus. Now that she’s mastered her ability to build relationships, Nuñez said she has three main goals for OMA she hopes to implement over time through honor and trust.
Her priorities include solidifying her leadership style and having a student-centered lens so students from different backgrounds can reaffirm their values through inclusion.
Other goals include solidifying partnerships with groups on campus such as the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean and the Institute on Black Life. Nuñez hopes to bridge the gap between faculty engagement and student success and ensure students recognize the impact faculty can have on their journey to success.
Nuñez’s past experiences and solidified moral compass allow her to bring a fresh perspective to an already expanding office. She hopes her ambitions for the future will produce real change at the university.
“I’m very passionate about social justice, education, multicultural affairs and diversity and inclusion work, specifically within the context of educating students and allowing them to feel that they’re able to explore their identities and feel affirmed in those identities as they learn about others,” she said.
“This is a position that I’ve been waiting for, if I may say that within the context of my career journey. I’m super excited and grateful that the university community has trusted me with such an endeavor.”