While it may be true that you can take a girl out of the country but not the country out of the girl, that’s quite all right with Dr. Guillermina “Gina” Nuñez-Mchiri. Raised by migrant farm worker parents, with whom she worked alongside as a child, she carries those memories and early lessons into the classroom.
“Some say knowledge is power. I prefer to say, ‘Applied knowledge is power.’ We must do something with the knowledge we acquire,” she says.
An assistant professor of cultural anthropology at The University of Texas at El Paso, Nuñez-Mchiri puts her words into action every day, from offering extra credit to students who participate in a litter clean-up and then record their experience for class, to teaching citizenship classes. She credits her parents for her staunch support of service learning.
“My favorite motto is a saying — or dicho in Spanish — that my mother taught me: ‘No one is a prophet in their own land,’ which means we need to be willing to leave our comfort zone to get to know what we’re made of and then come home and share what we’ve learned,” she says.
The oldest of five children, Nuñez-Mchiri was born in Salinas, Calif., hallowed ground for the United Farm Workers union. Migrant workers, disproportionately Latino, help feed the world. Yet, traveling from town to town, they’re not always welcomed with open arms, she says.
Nuñez-Mchiri’s scholarship touches on the education, cultural, language and human rights issues surrounding Mexican immigration to the U.S. and focuses on U.S.-Mexico border raids and undocumented immigrants’ access to health care. She has written studies on and is writing a book on living conditions in colonias, makeshift communities along the U.S.-Mexico border that are devoid of basic services like electricity. Her current research looks at familial ties and networks among Mexican-Americans with diabetes.
“Higher education struggles to be relevant. Universities are slow to change, mostly due to tradition,” says Dr. Steve Arvizu, former provost of California State University Monterey Bay. “Those with careers in academia tend to protect tradition. It falls on the more creative and courageous to delve into the middle of the struggle. Gina is one of those people.”
As a child, Nuñez-Mchiri dreamed of becoming a medical doctor, practicing on her brothers and sisters and posting a sign on her bedroom door that read: “Dr. Nuñez is in.” Instead, she took her father’s advice and studied international business as an undergraduate at San Diego State University. For her master’s degree, she accepted an invitation from Dr. Thomas Davies Jr. to pursue Latin American studies.
“She’s one of the best students I’ve ever had,” Davies says. “She comes from a hard world that makes what she’s accomplished so much more meaningful. She’s using her job not just to earn money, but to further understanding and cooperation among peoples.”
Nuñez-Mchiri has received a 2007 Texas Compact Faculty fellowship for excellence in service learning, an IMPACT faculty leadership fellowship at UT-El Paso in 2008 and a faculty fellowship from the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education in 2010.
Nuñez-Mchiri admits that it hasn’t been an easy professional path, particularly as a woman of color in academia. “The expectations are so high, everyone wants me to serve on their committees and I have students lined up to talk to me during office hours who have been sent to me by my colleagues. I’m not a counselor or trained social worker, but I know they need to talk to me so I’m happy to do it.”
Married and the mother of a young son, Nuñez-Mchiri hopes to achieve tenure. In the future, she thinks a college presidency would be nice too.
Title: Assistant professor of cultural anthropology, The University of Texas at El Paso
Education: Ph.D.: Cultural Anthropology, University of California-Riverside; M.A.: Latin American Studies, San Diego State University;
B.A.: International Business, San Diego State University
Career Mentors: Adelaida Del Castillo (San Diego State University), Steven Arvizu (California State University, Monterey Bay), Thomas Davies, (San Diego State University), Carlos Velez-Ibañez (Arizona State University), Maria Cruz-Torres (ASU)
Words to Live By: ‘No one is a prophet in their own land,’ which means we need to be willing to leave our comfort zone to get to know what we’re made of and then comehome and share what we’ve learned.