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Maria Luna-Duarte’s first memory of Northeastern Illinois University is a bit of a blur.
“I know when I was little, someone brought me here, to Northeastern,” Luna-Duarte said. “I specifically remember the sign at the corner of Bryn Mawr and St. Louis avenues.”
Now the director of Northeastern’s El Centro location, which is located in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago and focuses on outreach to the Hispanic community, Luna-Duarte recognizes that childhood visit as a poignant moment in her life.
It wasn’t until years later that she would realize the hurdles to pursuing a higher education. Luna-Duarte’s family came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 years old, and she grew up undocumented.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Luna-Duarte, who became a citizen at 25. “I was in the top 10 of my class and president of the National Honor Society, but because there wasn’t information out there about how undocumented students get into college, like there is now, nobody talked about it.”
Luna-Duarte credits her counselor at Senn High School in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood with helping her find a path to a higher education.
“She sat me down and said, ‘OK, you have all these good grades. Why haven’t you applied to any colleges?’” Luna-Duarte recalled. “I had to disclose to her that I was undocumented.”
Luna-Duarte’s counselor encouraged her to apply to Northeastern through Proyecto Pa’Lante, a support program historically for Latino students who are academically successful but might not fully meet Northeastern’s admission requirements. The program offers support from academic advisors and help transitioning from high school to college so students can excel.
Luna-Duarte and her counselor gathered everything needed to submit her undergraduate application, and she was able to get an interview with Proyecto Pa’Lante and ultimately enroll at Northeastern.
“That was one of the happiest days of my life,” Luna-Duarte said. “I always wanted to go to college.”
Her family struggled to help her pay for her education because undocumented students cannot receive state or federal financial aid. Luna-Duarte completed her bachelor’s degree in 2002 in Sociology with a minor in Women’s Studies (now known as Women's and Gender Studies). When she was hired at Northeastern, Luna-Duarte was encouraged to continue her studies and went on to earn a master’s degree in Educational Leadership, with a Higher Education Leadership concentration, from Northeastern and a Ph.D. in Policy Studies in Urban Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“I have always found really amazing people at Northeastern,” Luna-Duarte said. “Me as a student, and reflecting now on my time as an administrator, you never know where you will end up. Northeastern made such an impact in my life that I think that’s why I have this career.”
As director of El Centro, a 51-year-old program that moved into a new building in Avondale in 2014, Luna-Duarte coordinates class schedules, oversees the El Centro Scholars and Summer Bridge programs, plans student activities, networks with the surrounding community and ensures all visitors—especially students—feel connected to the University.
Perhaps appropriately, it was the former director of El Centro who first made Luna-Duarte a Northeastern employee when he hired her as the Coordinator of Student Support Services. Now Northeastern’s Vice President for Student Affairs, Daniel López recognized that Luna-Duarte would be a strong advisor and advocate for students, a role that requires one to know a little bit about everything from financial aid to support services and academic programs.
“I realized Maria had a lot of potential,” López said. “She was a former student, so she understood the needs of other students, the community. She worked at one point with the Mexican consulate, so she understood that part of our mission as a university is to focus on community partnerships and community engagement. Maria was loved by the students. She was the kind of person who would always be there for the students.”
When the position of assistant director of El Centro opened up, López offered it to Luna-Duarte.
“Maria is just a natural at working with students,” López said. “I was delighted to offer her that position.”
When López was promoted, Luna-Duarte was the natural choice to step in as interim director of El Centro, a position she held for seven years before being named director in June of 2018.
Luna-Duarte certainly proved herself as interim director. López credits her with the development of El Centro’s current schedule, which had been problematic for students who wanted to take courses at El Centro and the Main Campus. He also credits her with bringing four academic programs, including the bachelor’s degree in Social Work, to El Centro so students could complete an entire degree at the location.
“That program is still in place today,” López said. “It’s one of the largest programs at El Centro and one of the largest programs here at the University. That program allowed the department to begin a graduate program in Social Work that is very successful.”
Luna-Duarte’s work at a high-profile center for higher education has dovetailed nicely with her academic research. Her doctoral dissertation focused on Latino/a DACAmented students who were determined to complete their college degrees in spite of the many challenges they faced, and her research has played an integral role in the development of resources for Northeastern’s undocumented student population.
“Maria was very involved and engaged and helped us in the creation of Undocumented Student Resources and all the things we have done since, including creating the first full-time director position at the University to work with students who are undocumented,” López said. “Maria’s decision to use the immigrant population as a dissertation topic was not only timely, but it was important because she helped us advance the work we were doing here. If nothing else, we had someone like Maria who was just so embedded in the research that would help us as we continued to evolve with this program at the University.”
Though Luna-Duarte has already accomplished a lot, she has big hopes for what she’ll be able to do as El Centro’s director. In the fall of 2018, Luna-Duarte and her El Centro team worked with Associate Professor of Computer Science Graciela Perera to organize a two-day event called Google at College, which allowed Northeastern students to meet with Google engineers to learn about pathways to careers at Google. That partnership is one Luna-Duarte hopes will grow.
Luna-Duarte also thinks about her legacy and how her work at Northeastern positively influences the lives of others.
“This is the work I want to do, the impact I want to leave as my legacy,” Luna-Duarte said. “I don’t feel like my work here is done yet. I want to make sure the work that I do changes lives and I’m able to do that working at El Centro as the leader of that location.”