Nearly 2,000 miles away from Elon University is a place Sylvia Muñoz calls home — Costa Rica. But after more than two decades of service to the university, she has found another meaning of the word within the campus community.
Muñoz’s Latino identity is not just a part of who she is but is ingrained into the work that she does.
“I continue to work with Latino students, obviously because of my identity, I identify with them a lot,” Muñoz said. “There is something about being part of minoritized identity at Elon that really holds us together.”
Muñoz was named assistant dean and director of the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education in October 2021 and in August 2022, was appointed to the Alamance County Community College Board of Trustees. These titles are representative of years of dedication.
Throughout her time at Elon, Muñoz has received the Latinx-Hispanic Service Award, Phoenix Community Engagement Award and the Periclean Award for Civic Engagement and Social Responsibility.
Climbing the ladder
Three years before she first arrived at the university, Muñoz was part of an exchange program, where she taught Spanish in the North Carolina public school system. During the last year of the program, she was placed at a middle school in Alamance County, where she was introduced to Elon and its former president Fred Young.
Young invited Muñoz to come to the university in 1998 to establish a Spanish-language center. In the time that followed, El Centro de Español expanded from a program for language instruction into a resource center geared towards supporting Hispanic and Latino students, faculty and staff.
The foundations of the CREDE were first laid in 1992, with the creation of an African American Resource Room. To align with its diversity and inclusion efforts, the university expanded resources for the initial space into what would become the Multicultural Center. Then, in 2014, that center merged with El Centro to form what is now the CREDE.
For Muñoz, this growth has been rewarding.
“Merging El Centro with the CREDE has been a lot of work because it’s like merging a center within a center,” she said. “It has given me the opportunity to work with students from different identities that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to work with so directly.”
Though the progress of the center is something that fills Muñoz with pride, she said the director position originally made her weary that interactions with students would be less frequent.
“I knew being in a more administrative role was going to create more of a distance, that I knew that if didn’t want to lose that, I needed to be more intentional about not getting rid of it,” Muñoz said. “What I love the most about the roles that I have had at Elon is the connection I get to make with students.”
Assistant Director of the CREDE Simone Royal ’17 said she has seen both the CREDE and Muñoz in many stages — first as an Elon student herself and now as a colleague.
She said Muñoz spearheaded the initiative that turned the CREDE into what it is now—a hub for student diversity education across campus. Though it is not just a physical space, it also serves as a center for support of Black, Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander, Native American, Alaskan Native and multiracial communities communities at Elon.
“There have been stigmas that the CREDE is just a space for, whether that’s just Black students or students who hold a marginalized identity, that’s the space for them,” Royal said. “So what our staff in CREDE and I would say Sylvia has definitely did great work on making the environment feel open to all students no matter what identity that you hold.”
Royal said the CREDE has transitioned into a space that promotes inclusivity in all forms. She has worked at the university for a little over a year and said between her time as an Elon student and working at the university, she has seen more students feel comfortable coming into the space.
“I think that is a shift that has not always been,” Royal said. “When I was a student, everyone was welcomed but definitely people would be more hesitant to come into the space or not have a certain identity.”
Muñoz remembers her return to Costa Rica after the end of her exchange program. Her family had hosted a welcome back party, and she had a friend from Spain visiting. The pair spent some time traveling around Costa Rica.
The day her friend left was the day she got a call from Young, who offered her a job at Elon. Though she had just returned home to her family, she had to wrestle with the thought of leaving again.
“I'm going to be really honest, I didn't want to come back. I was already at home. I was feeling good about being back home. But I had given him my word,” Muñoz said. “Something my parents always said, ‘Your word is more valuable than anything else. Once you give your word you need to stick to it.’ That’s something that I’ve grown up with. My word is very important because it’s reflective of who I am.”
Muñoz returned to Elon to open the Spanish center, and in turn, took faculty and staff back with her to Costa Rica. While there, those visiting attended gatherings and parties at Muñoz’s family home.
“That was the highlight of my trip,” Muñoz said. “Being able to interact with a Costa Rican family. My family, most of them didn’t speak English, but they didn’t care. They will talk to people regardless of whether they were understood or not.”
Just as Muñoz opened up her home to others from Elon, they integrated themselves into her family, and she became a part of theirs. Muñoz said she has built a life here in North Carolina — through work, and her daughter.
While she misses her home country and family, she said she has a new sense of community here on campus.
“I can tell you both my parents passed away in the last three years, and the support I got from Elon, in the sense of, ‘Go home,’ there was no questions asked,” Muñoz said. “For me, that’s really valuable.”
The unwavering support is something Muñoz said keeps her going.
“I think that Elon became first family by blood and family that you choose,” Muñoz said. “There’s some members of the Elon community that have become family to me.”
Highlighting Hispanic Heritage
Though Hispanic Heritage month is formally celebrated from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, Muñoz said honoring Latino and Hispanic identities and cultures cannot be confined to just one month.
“I actually fight against that narrative of only celebrating and only opening spaces for folks during certain periods of time,” Muñoz said. “On the other hand, though, I think it’s an important time to pause, to gather in community, to celebrate in a more intentional way who we are, what we represent.”
This time can be used to highlight what identity means on campus, in local communities, and in bigger ones as well, something Muñoz said some students need.
Muñoz said the diversity of the Latino community can present in different forms. Some may be bilingual, and some, bicultural.
“For some of us, that identity is very salient. For others, they are developing that identity,” Muñoz said, “I think taking the time to gather in community and celebrate that is important.”
Muñoz said the events hosted on campus radiate positive and uplifting energy.
“One of the best things for me is to see Latino students smiling, and it’s like, ‘Oh this is my university, and we are part of this university, and we belong here,’” Muñoz said.
Fostering lasting connections
For Royal, Muñoz has been a sound example of how to invite all people into one space. Royal said she has seen a gap bridged that may have existed previously.
“We want to hear voices from all students, and I think Sylvia does a great job of making everyone feel heard,” Royal said.
When Muñoz is in her office, the door is open — always. She said it is one thing to say she cares, but another to show it.
“I refuse to close the door. For me, closing the door is putting them out in a barrier,” Muñoz said. “I have the idea that the work that I do is the students. If a student needs to talk to me or if a student wants to come and say hi, I can drop what I’m going and give five minutes of my attention to the student and I can get back to my work later on.”
These connections, Muñoz said, are more than just attending events. It’s talking to students about where they come from, their families and their backgrounds.
Royal said the formation and developments of the CREDE are the first steps in the work that the university is doing to become more diverse and more inclusive.
“There’s always more work to be done,” Royal said. “But that is a space that has garnered more eyes over the last few years, still will continue to garner eyes because of the name of the center and what that means, what that holds.”
Royal believes the growth under the leadership of Muñoz is a model for students to follow.
Muñoz said she hopes her voice can be one for the students. While she recognizes that she cannot speak for everyone who identifies as Latino, she can represent them with respect.
“I acknowledge that I have a lot of privilege to be able to sit in spaces where I wasn’t able to sit awhile ago and to be able to provide my perspective that I know is different,” Muñoz said. “Everybody’s perspective is different and my lens is that Latino lens, and I’m very aware of that.”
Muñoz said she takes her job and her privilege with honor and care.
“One of the things that being at Elon and doing the work that I do have done for me is to really make me proud of my identity,” Muñoz said. “But also has opened the door for me to learn more about what that even means.”