Marianela Nuñez: Connecting Latino Families to Catholic Schools with the Reform Leaders’ Summit
If it is true that “your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world's greatest need,” Marianela Nuñez has found that vocation in the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey. Nuñez, an exuberant woman who emigrated from the Dominican Republic, directs the diocesan Latino Enrollment Initiative where she connects Latino families with Catholic schools. In this role, Nuñez is able to utilize so many of her gifts and skills: her communication background, natural affability, and love for her community and culture. Because Nuñez does such excellent work building the Latino community among South Jersey Catholic schools, she was nominated to attend the Reform Leaders’ Summit to broaden her understanding of educational choice in the United States.
Nuñez’s road to the Reform Leaders’ Summit actually began during her sixth-grade year in the Dominican Republic when she switched from a public school to a Catholic school. Nuñez credits the Catholic school with helping her to discover her talents. For example, the nuns in the school invited her to join the choir, take piano lessons, and become a lector at Mass.
“I probably liked to sing but I didn’t know I could do it—the invitation was amazing. Being a lector helped me realize that I had public speaking skills,” says Nuñez. “And in terms of my soul, I felt more connected to God [at my Catholic school]. I felt more connected to a community of faith that shared my values… I felt so good about the change and it was beautiful.”
Nuñez never forgot how her family and other community members worked together to provide her with this educational experience. Nuñez explains that there is a “perception in Latin America that Catholic schools and private schools are for the elite, and it’s probably not only perception but a reality for many.” Despite this, Nunez’s grandmother contacted a priest about Nuñez’s wish to go to a Catholic school, and he helped to enroll Nuñez at El Colegio Nuestra Señora del Carmen with the help of some Catholic school supporters from Spain, his country of origin.
Nuñez carried her appreciation for her Catholic school experience with her when she emigrated to the United States in 2008. Here, she earned her bachelor’s degree in communication from Rowan University and her master’s degree from Villanova. During this time, Nuñez also directed the English as a Second Language program for members of her parish, St. Joseph’s Cathedral. When Nuñez began to consider her career options after graduate school, she felt it made sense to use both her communication skills and love of the Latino community to help families like hers access the South Jersey Catholic schools. She became a field consultant to the Latino Enrollment Project in 2014.
“The bishop and superintendent wanted to better serve Latino families in the diocese and increase our Latino enrollment, so I started meeting with principals and talking with them about serving Latinos in Catholic schools,” Nuñez says. “Big companies are advertising and targeting Latino populations, and [the Catholic Church] should be too, not just from a marketing standpoint but from a mission standpoint. It’s who we are—it should be really near and dear to our hearts to help a family get a Catholic education.”
Thanks to Nunez and some coaching from the Latino Enrollment Institute at Notre Dame, South Jersey Catholic schools’ Latino Enrollment Initiative has made great strides in increasing Latino enrollment in Catholic schools, but Nuñez became curious about how her families could access government money to send their children to the schools of their choosing. The diocesan office was conveniently located next to the Camden city hall, so Nuñez paid a visit to her state senator to learn more.
"Since I started with the diocese I realized that there are states that have government funding available for their schools and how that really makes a difference in the families they get and how they are serving those in need.
I dream about our state becoming one of those… There’s still a lot of politics that I’m in the process of learning, so when I got the email [about going to the Reform Leaders’ Summit], it was like confirmation—I really need to learn about this.”
Nuñez says that, through the presentations and ongoing virtual meetings and readings, she has learned an incredible amount about educational choice in a short amount of time.
“I think for me especially, being [at the Reform Leaders’ Summit] involves a lot of learning; I learn about the country; I learn about the system itself,” Nuñez says. “There are so many things I am unfamiliar with not having lived here my whole life, I feel like I’m “double learning” because these are things I have been interested in and haven’t been able to research myself.”
Nuñez says she plans to share what she has learned at the Reform Leaders’ Summit with the larger community of South Jersey. She hopes to empower fellow residents to fight for policies that will increase families’ ability to choose the schools that are best for their children.
Nunez advises other community builders like herself to seek out educational opportunities like the Reform Leaders’ Summit. She says, “If you are someone who is willing to make a change in the world, being with the people like the ones [at the Summit] makes you feel like you are part of the change already. It makes you feel like you are on the front line trying to push for things to happen. It allows you to connect with people who have been doing this work for a long time and who have seen progress and challenges. It makes you have an understanding of how things work and how you have the same capabilities to change things yourself.”
Learn more about the Reform Leaders' Summit and apply at ace.nd.edu/summit