Claudia Guzmán loves each moment of her role as the University of Green Bay’s Director of Student Life, helping to enhance the college experience for nearly 7,000 students.
“I applied and every moment since has been an affirmation that I belong here,” she says.
When Madison365 published its list of Wisconsin’s 32 most powerful Latinos for 2018, Guzmán made the list for her contributions in both higher education and in the nonprofit sector.
Prior to joining UW-Green Bay, she served as the sociocultural program manager at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Guzmán led the charge in expanding diverse programming and collaboration across the institution. She oversaw large-scale lectures and events highlighting the experiences of all kinds of identities, not just race. Guzmán recalled the time when former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to the university to discuss his Muslim identity or when Black Lives Matters co-founder Alicia Garza visited the institution.
“In my last year, we launched our social justice curriculum series called ‘Lead the Change,” she says.
In her current role, Guzmán serves as an advocate for students while championing diversity and equity; however, she did not originally begin her career in student services. She wanted to serve her community.
She attributed this sentiment to her family and upbringing. Guzmán’s grandparents moved to Cedarburg, Wisconsin in 1964. Her grandfather worked as a tool and die maker in Sheboygan while her grandmother worked as a custodian at Northeast Technical College.
“As a custodian, she had a lot of aches and pains but she had a lot of grit,” Guzmán said.
Guzmán inherited both her grandparents’ grit and work ethic. After graduating from Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School in 1998, she attended Wellesley College, an all women’s institution. She was always a bright student and knew she wanted to attend college somewhere on the East Coast for college.
“I got in my head that Boston and the East Coast was a pretty great place to college,” Guzmán says.
She didn’t know Wellesley was a women’s college until she showed up on an East Coast road trip. When Guzmán arrived on campus, she found she did not feel like she quite belonged at the university.
“I was totally an anomaly in college. Most of the kids that attended Wesley were wealthy,” she said.
Guzmán considered transferring to Northwestern University;l however, transfer students often receive financial aid last so she decided to make it work at Wellesley. She said joining a student organization helped a lot.
Guzmán said she did have a transformative experience in college while studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico her junior year. She said her exposure to others’ realities changed how she viewed the world. Guzmán described what she called as sort of a quarter life crisis. She received her degree in English Literature and in Spanish, graduating magna cum laude.
“After I finished school, I felt called to serve my community and for me what that looked like is working in the nonprofit sector,” Guzmán said.
She returned to Milwaukee to work as a development associate for La Causa, the largest bilingual child care organization in the state at the time. Guzmán said she always wanted to contribute to something bigger than herself whether through job, volunteering experience or for fun.
Once she returned from college, she finally understood the nonprofit sector and how these organizations influence the environments we live in. Guzmán said her family often did not use those services as a kid, even though they were poor.
“I just wanted to make sure I did something when I came back and serve my community,” she said.
After working for La Causa for two years, Guzmán was recruited to work for a consulting firm for nonprofits. She enjoyed this position because instead of working for one nonprofit, she worked with a variety of projects for different nonprofits. After some time passed, she saw that an Outreach Specialist position opened up in the Roberto Hernandez Center in UW-Milwaukee so she decided to apply.
Guzmán made her way back to the higher education space, a place she loved. She had the opportunity to give back to Milwaukee’s southside Latino community in a space she knew, a college campus. Although Guzmán grew up on the Northside and did not learn Spanish at home, she had an understanding of both worlds.
“While I am Mexican American, that doesn’t mean as much to me as brown. Even the word Latina means more to me because that describes my experience in America,” she says.
Guzmán says ultimately she is a product of her city and she is proud of that, but that doesn’t mean her identity fits into these neat boxes. The Outreach Specialist job at UW-Milwaukee gave her a unique way for her to serve her community.
She decided to go back to school, receiving a Masters of Arts in Communications, specializing in journalism, advertising/public relations and digital storytelling while teaching a course in public relations. After finishing in 2010, she briefly worked 88Nine Radio Milwaukee before UW-Milwaukee recruited her for the Sociocultural Programming Manager position, a role she spent six years in before taking the job at UW-Green Bay just over a year ago.
When she’s not at work, she’s also works for the Milwaukee Film Festival remotely, contributing to a Latinx and Latin American film program component. Guzmán said understanding herself and identity informs her work, a lesson she learned through a social justice institute in 2016. The institute was designed for social justice educators to really think on and reflect on why they do this work.
“Those things about me that I thought were weak or needed to be hidden are my strengths,” she said.
Guzmán says she was able to take all the broken pieces of herself and put them back together while smoothing out the sharp edges. Now, she has a stronger motivation to use her voice whether advocating for herself, her students at UWGB, or the community.