Mentor principals have played a critical role in the success of the Latino Enrollment Institute (LEI) since the program’s inception in 2012. The experience, accountability, and personal attention that these leaders provide have been a defining characteristic of the LEI, helping Catholic school principals—and their teams—institute lasting changes.
After schools attend the LEI summer conference, mentor principals maintain regular contact with the 4-6 school leaders in their group through monthly video conference calls. These conversations, which focus on various themes related to Latino outreach, recruitment, and enrollment, are an opportunity for school leaders to learn from one another and receive real-time consultation and feedback from their mentors on some of the things that they’re doing in their school.
The commitment of our LEI mentors, most of whom are still active Catholic school principals themselves, is truly the engine that drives the LEI.
This month, we highlight Erin Vu, who currently serves as the principal of Holy Family Catholic School in Austin, Texas. Erin is a graduate of both the ACE Teaching Fellows Program and the Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame and has served as a mentor for the Latino Enrollment Institute since 2018. During her time in Catholic education, Erin has worked to expand access to Catholic schools by offering support for students with diverse learning and language needs.
Read the interview below to learn more about Erin Vu, her LEI journey, and what continues to fuel her passion for Catholic education and serving Latino families.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing. Where did you grow up? Were you a product of Catholic schools?
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. I am the oldest in my family, and I have two wonderful sisters. As a child, I was blessed to grow up with my mom’s parents in town. We often went over to my grandparents' house for dinner, hanging out, and having sleepovers. My mom and dad sacrificed to send my sisters and me to Catholic school. I attended St. Joseph Catholic School from K-8 and then I went to Bishop Kenny Catholic High School. Following high school graduation, I attended St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, where I majored in English and History with a minor in math. I then attended the University of Notre Dame for my M.Ed. and my M.A. It is certainly fair to say that I am a product of Catholic education!
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
In our schools, we are called to serve the people that God has sent to be in our community. Across the country, God is currently calling our Latino children to our communities. We need to work together to help ensure that our schools are ready to support God’s children whether it be through enrollment practices, intentionally partnering with families, and supporting academic development. The LEI heps equip school leaders with resources to meet the needs of the children and families in our community.
When I was in high school, I wanted to be an architect. I loved the idea of building homes for people. I also had a somewhat serious interest in becoming a dance teacher. I began dancing at 5, and I was pretty involved in the dance studio that I attended. It was a small Christian dance studio where we learned to “praise the Lord with our feet.” At 16, I started teaching dance, and I continued teaching dance through college. During that time, I really considered dancing and dreamed of owning a dance studio.
You've now spent many years in Catholic schools, serving in various capacities. When did you first feel called to Catholic education and what has that journey looked like for you since then?
I first felt called to teaching after working with students. In high school and college, I worked/volunteered at an afterschool tutoring company, taught dance, and ran the Bandlink program for two Catholic schools in South Bend, Indiana. I think those opportunities helped me to see that I had a passion for working with young people. This eventually turned into a desire to apply for the ACE Teaching Fellows program. I was aware of the “ACE” program after having ACE teachers in high school, so I applied. This opened the door to my vocation, and I am so thankful that I said yes to ACE.
From the classroom, to developing as a school leader, to mentoring other school leaders, your journey in Catholic education has been closely tied to ACE. What would you say has been the biggest impact ACE has had on you both personally and professionally?
ACE has had a huge impact on my life. First of all, ACE is how I met my husband. When I applied to ACE Teaching Fellows, I was accepted and was asked to serve at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Tucson, Arizona. At first, I was not happy about moving to Tucson because it was so far from Jacksonville. The night I found out about my placement, I met Phong who was also placed at St. Augustine Catholic High School. I am thankful to ACE because I found my husband, Phong, and now we have our 6 children.
I am also thankful to ACE because it opened my eyes to my vocation. I fell in love with teaching high school students and working in Catholic schools, and I also loved living in Tucson. It is a wonderful city filled with amazing people. At St. Augustine, I was able to work with great school leaders who eventually encouraged me to go back to the Remick Leadership Program through ACE for my master's. This opened the door to school leadership and eventually led to my decision to move from St. Augustine to Our Mother of Sorrows in Tucson.
Without ACE, I do not think that I would have the joy in my life that I have today. I am blessed both professionally and personally by the ACE program as well as great mentors along the way.
How have you been moved and inspired by the work of the LEI?
In Tucson, I accompanied so many families who were sending their children to Catholic schools because we aligned with the faith that they taught at home. I was also blessed to work with children who would be the first person in their family to finish high school and go to college. It was a blessing to accompany these families, and I became passionate about opening the doors of education for God’s children.
When I taught, I regularly had children in my classroom who were new to the United States, and they needed a little extra support to access the literature. It was incredible to watch students enter my classroom as a 9th grader as a child who could not converse in English and then see the child graduate from high school after tackling honors and AP classes.
As I became a school leader, I realized that there were many families at my parish who did not come to Our Mother of Sorrows. With many conversations, pulpit announcements, and work with my pastor, we started getting the word out about our school. This gave me more energy to work with our families and support their children.
We always talk about the importance of celebrating the diversity of languages and cultures in our Catholic schools. Can you think of an event or moment you’ve witnessed or been a part of during your journey in Catholic education that really exemplifies this? What is one way that you celebrate language and culture at Holy Family School?
At Holy Family, we are still a young school. This year, we held Las Posadas. This is not something that that school community traditionally does, but we talked about making this a tradition. Our 8th-grade students learned the Spanish phrases in their Spanish class, and then they prepared luminarias to light the way to the gym.
Our whole community traveled from the classrooms to the gym during Las Posadas. Once we all arrived in the gym, the Spanish teacher gave a little mini-lesson on the history of the celebration. The time concluded with the traditional songs followed by a Christmas sing-a-long.
Serving as a Catholic school principal has never been a job for the faint of heart. You often take on a multitude of roles and responsibilities and are pulled in many different directions. I know this doesn’t end for you when you go home at the end of the school day, though. You step into a beautiful, yet bustling, family life. Can you tell us a bit about your family and what you enjoy most about motherhood?
We have started calling ourselves the “Vu Crew” which is fitting with our family of 8. I am thankful for a best friend and partner who helps contain the chaos with me. Our six children fill my house with noise. While we are still in the season of sleepless nights and diapers with Marie who is 6 months old, we are also helping our 10-year-old work through the ups and downs of elementary school.
I love being a mother and being with my children. Sometimes on the drive home from school, I enjoy listening to their chatter in the back of the mini-van. Once we get home, there is a mix of structure and chaos. Everyone has to help in order to get things done. Homework happens at the kitchen table while we cook dinner, baths happen, and household responsibilities (chores) occur. Then, we sit for dinner as a family each night. Most nights this is a time to eat, laugh, and attempt to help everyone learn table manners. After dinner, we typically all go upstairs to read stories, say prayers, and then go to bed!
It is a busy season with the six kids, but I cannot imagine life any other way. Some of my favorite things to do with our children are to have impromptu dance parties, bake together, read stories, watch a Friday night movie together, and spend one-on-one time with them. I also love seeing my children with each other. Like all siblings, they fight with each other, but when they are alone for more than a few hours without their siblings, each of them starts to talk about how much they miss each other. I am truly grateful for that.
What is one thing you miss about living in Arizona and one thing you've come to love about living in Texas?
I think a place is really all about the people you are surrounded by, so I really miss the people in Tucson. In terms of a thing, I miss the tamales and the sunsets. Texas has them, but they are not the same. I miss the green corn tamales and the traditional tamales with the olive in the middle. They are so delicious! The sunsets in Arizona are gorgeous with splashes of orange, red, and purple sliding behind the mountains.
In Austin, I have met some amazing people too, and I love that I can eat fried catfish. We live in a small town outside Austin, and the restaurant near my house has great Southern food. I enjoy getting the fried catfish along with the okra and sweet potato. It is delicious.
What are a few of the strengths you’ve acquired over your years in Catholic education—either from the classroom or in a position of leadership—that you draw upon and try to impart to other Catholic school leaders you work within the LEI?
I have learned how to take in information, process the information, and then not overreact. In my time as a school leader, I had to learn how to take in information from all angles. Often the information is conflicting, but a decision has to be made. Early on, I had the opportunity to work with a few great mentors. These people helped me learn how to not overreact. This is good in our work with the LEI because sometimes leaders receive pushback. When that happens, it helps to be able to take in the information and not change just because one person disagrees. It also allows for reflection in order to see if something needs to be changed because it is not working.
If you were to give an elevator pitch to another Catholic school leader about the LEI, what would you say?
The LEI is an opportunity for principals to collaborate in a PLC as they work toward the common goal of ensuring that our Catholic schools help all God’s children strive toward heaven. In our schools, we are called to serve the people that God has sent to be in our community. Across the country, God is currently calling our Latino children to our communities. We need to work together to help ensure that our schools are ready to support God’s children whether it be through enrollment practices, intentionally partnering with families, and supporting academic development. The LEI helps equip school leaders with resources to meet the needs of the children and families in our community.
What is your favorite place that you’ve visited?
My favorite place to visit is the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. We went there every summer when I was a little girl, and I loved hiking, canoeing, and enjoying the beautiful scenery of the mountains. Maybe it is because I grew up so close to the beach, but the idea of being on a mountain by a lake is pretty much my perfect idea for a peaceful vacation.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
“Spend time with your husband.”
Msgr. Tom Cahalane was my first pastor, and he was a great pastor to work with as a principal. We met each Tuesday morning after morning announcements, and it was not uncommon for him to ask if I was spending time with Phong and the kids. He used to ask if I was staying connected with my family amidst the ministry that we do as school leaders. I was thankful for that care and concern for me as a person, but I carry the importance of never letting my ministry in Catholic education overpower my vocation as a wife and mother.
If you could meet any person in the world, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?
St. Gianna Molla. She has become a recent “saint friend” of mine. I am inspired by her commitment to God and to life. I would love to sit with St. Gianna and talk about balancing being a wife, mother, and career.
If you could effortlessly pick up a skill in an instant, what would it be?
I would choose to be able to speak Vietnamese. My husband’s first language is Vietnamese, and some of his grandparents do not speak English. I would love to be able to have a clear and coherent conversation with Phong’s family members in Vietnamese. It would also be great to be able to sit at the dinner table at his parent’s house and know everything that is being said at the table. After almost a decade, I can understand some things, but it would be so nice to be able to listen and speak with ease.
More about Erin Vu...
Erin moved to Austin, Texas, in 2021 to serve as the principal of Holy Family Catholic School. Holy Family is a diocesan Catholic school serving over 650 students in grades PK to 8. Before moving to Texas, she served in the Diocese of Tucson from 2009-2021. She moved to Tucson as a member of the ACE Teaching Fellows Program through the University of Notre Dame in the 16th cohort. As part of the ACE program, Erin taught English and Theology at St. Augustine Catholic High School. After finishing her M.Ed., Erin joined the Remick Leadership Program in the 11th cohort and eventually became the Dean of Students at St. Augustine. In 2014, Erin left St. Augustine to become the Assistant Principal at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic School, a parish school. She served as the principal at Our Mother of Sorrows from 2016 to 2021. During her time in Catholic education, Erin has worked to expand access to Catholic education by offering support for students with diverse learning and language needs. Erin currently lives in Austin with her husband, Phong, and their six children: Patrick, Evelyn, John Paul, Michael, Luke, and Marie.
If you're interested in learning how to recruit, enroll, and better serve Latino children in your school, as well as work with an incredible mentor like Erin, consider joining the LEI!