Written by Dwight Bachman
Elsa M. Núñez accepts the Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award. Left to right: Mark Gingras, Chairman of Liberty Bank; Willard McRae; Elsa Núñez; Chandler Howard, President and CEO of Liberty Bank
Willimantic, Conn: --Liberty Bank officials presented Eastern President Elsa M. Núñez with the 2012 Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award at a gala reception on Nov. 15 in the Betty R. Tipton Room attended by more than 300 friends, family members, students, faculty, Eastern staff, bank officers and community leaders.
"In choosing the recipient of the award, we look not just for people who have given their time in service to community organizations, but for those who have made it their mission to make opportunities available to all," said Chandler Howard, president and CEO of Liberty Bank. "There is not a shadow of a doubt that Elsa Núñez is such a person."
Introduced in 2001 as the Liberty Bank Community Diversity Award, the award was renamed in 2009 in honor of Willard M. McRae, past chairman and board member of Liberty Bank. The award is designed to recognize an individual from the communities served by Liberty Bank who has been a leader in connecting people who are different -- whether those differences are of religion, race, ethnicity, economic status, age, or any other aspect of diversity.
As this year's award recipient, Núñez was able to direct a $5,000 charitable donation from the Liberty Bank Foundation to the nonprofit organization of her choice. She selected the Eastern Connecticut State University scholarship fund to receive the donation.
In accepting the award, Núñez spoke passionately about the need to address the educational achievement gap: "The conditions for every American in our society are not what you and I consider fair. When we see that the college graduation rate for African American students is 20 percent lower than that of white students - and that Latinos are half as likely to finish college - we realize that we have to create change in our communities and our universities."
Since her arrival at Eastern Connecticut State University in 2006, Núñez has worked tirelessly not only to make higher education accessible to underrepresented students, but also to support their success once they enter college. One of her innovations at Eastern is the award-winning Dual College Enrollment Initiative, now in its fifth year, which recruits inner-city high school graduates to take four remedial courses at Quinebaug Valley Community College in the first semester of college, while living on Eastern's campus and taking one course there. Students receive extensive mentoring, support services, on-campus employment and full integration into campus life. Núñez also established the Academic Services Center, which provides tutoring, advising and other services to all students, with a focus on underrepresented populations. Because of programs like these, a recent national study of 391 institutions of higher education ranked Eastern number one among public institutions in improving of the graduation rate of its Latino students -- an increase from 20 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2010.
Under Núñez's leadership, Eastern has built numerous partnerships with organizations in the Windham community, including the Windham Public Schools, where more than 1,000 Eastern students tutor or perform other volunteer service. In 2009, she created the on-campus Center for Community Engagement to coordinate Eastern volunteers in the community. Núñez was also instrumental in developing a partnership with the Caribe League of Bridgeport and the Spanish American Merchants Association in Willimantic.
Núñez's involvement in community organizations are many and varied, includes serving the board of directors of Hartford Health Care, the Connecticut Association for Human Services, the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education, Camp Horizons, the Village for Families and Children, Girl Scouts of Connecticut and Covenant Soup Kitchen.
"Leadership is all about vision, and Dr. Núñez has a big vision," said Edward Osborn, director of university relations at Eastern, who nominated Núñez for the award. "In her mind, the 'tent' -- whether it is this campus, this community, this state, this nation, or the entire world -- includes all of us. Even with such a big vision, Dr. Núñez sees each person as the unique individual they are."
"There are five words that stick in my mind when I think of Elsa Núñez: Learn. Achieve. Give back. Repeat. This is what this extraordinary woman has done with her own life -- and what she encourages and enables every student, and indeed everyone around her, to do themselves," said Howard in presenting the award.