Elsa Nunez '70

It may have been fate that brought Elsa Nunez ’70 to the presidency of Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) nearly six years ago. When the Puerto Rican-born daughter of immigrant factory workers took the top post at the public liberal arts university, she was unaware of the reason for the area’s large Latino population.

It wasn’t until she began researching the history of Hispanics in Connecticut that Nunez discovered that many of the people who settled in the town of Willimantic, where the university is located, came from her own hometown of San Sebastián. “There’s been a large Puerto Rican population here since the 1920s,” she says.

Nunez came to America with her parents when she was six years old. They settled in New Jersey, where she attended high school in Belleville and then continued her education earning a bachelor’s degree at Montclair State, a master’s from Fairleigh Dickinson, and a doctorate in linguistics from Rutgers. She’s been on the faculty at several institutions, and has held administrative positions at universities in New York, Maine, and Massachusetts.

A vocal advocate for bridging the achievement gap in the Latino community, Nunez recently received the Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission’s Lifetime Achievement Award. “The achievement gap in Connecticut is the worst in the country,” she said in her keynote address at the presentation, “and Latino students’ academic performance actually gets worse as they progress through school.” While Nunez is proud that ECSU has the best retention and graduation rates in the state, she says there is still work to be done.

Nunez credits Montclair State for her successful academic career. “Graduating from Montclair gave me a leg up in life,” she says. “I could not have achieved what I have in life if that door was not open for me.”

In particular, Nunez is grateful to the late Moe McGee who taught an English course her first semester. “I felt so overwhelmed and intimated,” she recalls. “Every day Professor McGee would call out our names for attendance and after he said, ‘Elsa Nunez,’ he’d say, ‘What a beautiful name.’ He did this every day. It somehow gave me confidence and the other students started to notice me.”

One day, McGee returned a paper Nunez had written. “It had 1,000 red marks on it,” she confesses. “He told me to come to his office every Wednesday to work on my writing. He became my mentor. He never said that I had a deficit. Instead, he’d say, ‘Elsa, you have a lot of potential.’ ” 

Nunez relates that story each year to her faculty at orientation. “I want them to know that even when they may not know it, they could be making a difference in a student’s life.”