Perez leaves lasting impact on MC community

Perez leaves lasting impact on MC community

May 15, 2015

Maryville College senior José Perez has transformed from a terrified freshman unsure of his place at Maryville College into a social justice advocate who has made a lasting impact on the MC community.

Perez, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree on May 17, is a first-generation college student and a Mexican-American from an immigrant family.

“As a member of an ethnic minority group at MC, he struggled to find his place initially, but instead of giving up, he sought opportunities to create a more welcoming environment not only for himself, but for all Latino students at Maryville College,” said Vandy Kemp, vice president and dean of students.

“I remember coming onto campus the first day and thinking that I was going to have to eat at Pearsons by myself every day,” said Perez, a psychology major with dual minors in Spanish and sociology. “I was scared to open up, but I started to find my passion working with other people, and I started opening up and talking and becoming more comfortable.”

Now, he says it was his experiences in public speaking, being a leader of several organizations and working as a Bonner Scholar have helped him change into a confident, passionate man.

“If I were to compare myself today to where I was my freshman year and first day, I would say I’m a completely different person,” Perez said. “I have the same values, but now I’m able to express what I want to say instead of keeping it to myself.”

“He is just such a great example of someone whose experience exemplifies what we do here and the transformative power of a liberal arts education,” said Dr. Crystal Colter, associate professor of psychology at MC and Perez’s academic and thesis advisor.

“He has grown so much personally while he’s been here. He’s not only gotten a great education, but he’s talked a lot about his journey over time from being a shy freshman, unsure if he was going to make it here, to how he’s turned out.”

Perez’s transformation started when he began exploring his passion for diversity by joining the Black Student Association.

“The first organization I ever joined in college was BSA. I remember walking in to meetings and feeling completely uncomfortable, but I just kept going, and I realized that the group of people was exactly what I needed,” said Perez.

He also joined the Gay-Straight Alliance. “I’m bisexual as well, so it was a way that I could advocate for something that people are uncomfortable talking about … Now I feel comfortable speaking about it and talking about it to other people, and in a sense, counseling them from what I know from experience.”

Perez additionally participated in the Global Citizenship Organization, but in his sophomore year, he realized the need for a group for Latino students and formed the Latino Student Alliance (LSA) to increase awareness of the Latino culture and to provide a community for Hispanic students.

“I was just out of town and for whatever reason, a person made a negative comment, and that’s just something I don’t want anyone else to experience,” he said. “The purpose of LSA is family … you can go to these people who aren’t blood-related and know they are there for you. LSA became my second family away from home.”

LSA has become an active group on campus celebrating Hispanic holidays and events like the Day of the Dead Festival and Day of the Dead Dance, as well as Haunted Week, which was a collaborative effort between many campus organizations.

“Once I started taking part in these organizations, I noticed that all the organizations had conversations about diversity, and in the back of my head I always wanted the organizations to work together and truly have a multicultural conversation,” he said.

Another reason Perez felt the need for LSA was the College’s Villamaría initiative aimed at increasing the enrollment of Hispanics in Appalachia at MC by making information about the college more accessible for Hispanic families.

Perez, who worked as an MC Ambassador in the admissions office, helped launched the college-wide initiative.

“The sticker price is usually the first thing [prospective students] go to, but we’re teaching them about the scholarships that are offered for academics or diversity that make it affordable,” he said. “We’re teaching these families that [college] is a possibility, and we’ve worked with the admissions office to translate walking tours for Hispanic families.”

Perez and Kemp were invited to Washington D.C. to present the Villamaría initiative to the American Association of College and Universities.

“José was well-spoken and passionate about the opportunities and challenges in higher education for Latino students,” said Kemp, who added that she is proud of all Perez has accomplished in his time at MC. “He is a significant leader and contributing citizen of this campus community. He is passionate about social justice and about the value of diversity.”

After graduation, Perez plans to take the summer off and spend time with his family in Mosheim, Tenn., before beginning studies at the University in Tennessee in 2016, where he plans to pursue a Ph.D. focused on student development.

“Hopefully, later on, I can give students the opportunity to express themselves the way I was able to and give them the opportunity to join organizations and push them out of their comfort zone,” said Perez.

“José has become the very face of the Latino movement at MC,” said Kemp. “He will be missed by many, particularly younger Hispanic students for whom he has been a role model.”

By Peggy Carouthers ’11

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”