Program director’s personal experiences inform her work with youth
By Charles Hallman
Minerva Muñoz’s main mission is to help as many prospective first-generation college students as possible get ready for post-secondary studies.
As a first-generation college graduate, Muñoz easily remembers how it felt upon her first arrival on a college campus where the majority of students didn’t look like her. “I was overwhelmed” as a University of Minnesota student in the early 2000s. “I wasn’t from here, and I needed family and community, and TRIO took me in.”
Muñoz is the University of Minnesota TRIO Upward Bound (UB) program director. Upward Bound is a half-century-old program that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 began as part of his War on Poverty, an “experimental college preparatory program that targeted bright and economically disadvantaged high school students.”
The federally-funded U of M UB program works with students at three Minneapolis high schools: North, South and Edison. “We only work with high school students who have identified themselves as potential college-bound [students],” explains Muñoz. “All of our students are either low-income, first generation or both. We recruit them in their ninth and 10th grade year, and we are pretty holistic in our approach.
“We work with students throughout their high school year, getting them prepped for college. All of our work is really designed for that, [so] when they step into the doors in college, they will be successful.”
This “holistic” approach, combining academic with social needs, she believes is important. “What we are asking from low-income students, in my opinion, is to really ‘migrate class’ and that’s a whole different culture. So we have to teach them that culture and what that looks like,” she points out.
The program includes sessions for students learning about Post-Secondary Education Opportunities (PSEO), Advanced Placement (AP) and College in the School (CIS) options in their high schools. It includes financial literacy and options for paying for college classes, meeting with former TRIO Upward Bound students who are now in college, and student/parent education workshops.
According to their 2012 report to the U.S. Education Department, 334 students have participated in the TRIO UB program — their 2013 reporting is due in November. In the program’s spring newsletter, 15 of 18 TRIO UB students who graduated from high school this spring were listed as incoming freshmen at various colleges and universities this fall, including three at the U of M and three out of state.
Her involvement with TRIO began as a tutor while she was a U of M sophomore, recalls Muñoz. “My first job here was working at the front desk. I was greeting people coming in.” Now, several years later, as director, “Between 2001 until now, only two years of my life [in Minnesota] I haven’t been involved with the program,” says Muñoz.
Originally from Milwaukee, “Neither one of my parents went to college, but I always knew that to get out of the projects, education was it. I focused on that. I needed to leave [Milwaukee]. Both of my parents were addicts and I needed out.
“When I came to the U of M, I met people as soon as I walked across the bridge with my luggage,” Muñoz continues. “There were some Latinos who came up to me and said, ‘You look lost.’ They took me in” and showed her around town. But she quickly adds that such occurrences may not be typical for future first-generation college students.
Because of the city’s changing demographics, “We find with our [first-generation] immigrant students that it is a lot about balancing the culture — the Americanization fear that the parents have,” adds Muñoz. “They feel that education will pull them away.”
As a result, her program “had to rethink how we do outreach to parents,” says the director. “We do try to go out of our way to make sure the parents understand.”
Furthermore, the university’s TRIO UB program isn’t a recruiting tool, she adds. “We are not a recruiter for the University of Minnesota. I’d say in a lot of instances that students shouldn’t come here. Some of our students need a smaller environment, places that have more targeted services for them.”
Muñoz says that she often advises students to choose a school where “they’ll be forced to live on campus,” noting that at least one-half of the students she worked with in the past three years have matriculated to University of Minnesota. “At my level of leadership, I understand what the kids are going through.”
What does she hope to see in the next 50 years? “I really think strategic partnerships are going to have to be our focus for the future. We all have to rethink our services and how we do them,” predicts Muñoz. “Another thing TRIO will have to do in the next few years is tell our story differently. We have so many success stories out there.”
She’s found her calling as an administrator. “Even as a high school kid, I always had a goal of running a nonprofit that was working on building up my people…people in the struggle. I didn’t know I would be doing this at the University of Minnesota.
“I’m able to balance and navigate” between her work with students and her administrative duties. “I need to be different for my students [than] when I am at the leadership table.
“This is where I am supposed to be. I’m going to do what these kids need.”
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