Creating a home away from home: Sylvia Muñoz’s journey from life in Costa Rica to leadership at Elon

Multimedia journalism by Mariah Posey | March 17, 2017

Sylvia Muñoz sits at her desk in her C.R.E.D.E. office.

Sylvia Muñoz hadn’t encountered “space” until she first came to the United States in 1994.  Back in San José, Costa Rica — her native country — she lived with her family of seven in a house adjacent to all of her closest friends: her cousins. At any given moment, her home was guaranteed to be full of excitement with either the noise of her sister and three brothers, her parents or her extended family members.

“When I say I am one of five, those are my siblings-siblings,” Muñoz said. “But I also grew up with all my cousins, especially on my mom’s side. We all lived next to each other. I think more than first cousins, we were also raised as sibling. I always say that I was raised with 25.”

The family model Muñoz grew up with was one that established an unbreakable bond. There were no days spent avoiding conversation over small arguments, or wasted locked behind a closed room door. The idea of having personal space, to her, is an odd and very American concept. Her best and worst days were spent surrounded by the people she loved, and she wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Home is where the family is,” Muñoz said.

Now nearly 20 years later since first leaving home, the same values hold true and have carried over to Elon University. In her roles as interim director for the C.R.E.D.E. and director of the Spanish Center, her large family has extended even more, expanding to include faculty, staff and students.


Dirty hands and childhood fun

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Sylvia with her parents and siblings in Costa Rica for her grandparents’ 60th anniversary.

“You’re crazy! I mean we’re going to get stuck in the middle the river,” or at least that’s what Muñoz thought her mom should have said when her often too-adventurous father spontaneously decided to cross a river in their small car.

“My dad just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to cross the river,’” but as a young girl, she figured he was only joking. To her surprise, her father meant in all seriousness what he had wildly proclaimed.

“We never did get stuck,” she said.

It was important to her parents that Muñoz and her siblings always had many experiences. Her mother, a school teacher and her father, an accountant, somehow balanced their strict and expecting nature with loving fun.

During summers, Muñoz and her siblings would spend time helping out at her father’s small coffee farm with their grandfather. The work was tough, but provided more opportunities for her siblings to create fun. Their summer days were spent playing outside and unafraid of getting dirty. Fresh fruit was everywhere — mangos, avocados, bananas — and always available to grab for a quick snack.

“This thing about washing them, that didn’t exist,” she said. “We had our hands dirty and we ate with our hands dirty. And we all made it.”

Before moving to the U.S., Muñoz never had a store-bought banana. Not having to buy fruit is one of the things she misses most about her home.


A different path than her siblings

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Sylvia with her extended family at her home in Costa Rica.

Muñoz isn’t sure why her mother decided to enroll her fifth-grade self in a German private school. The opportunity had not been presented to her sister or any of her three brothers. But she credits the experience for helping form her strong passions in language as well as playing a role in how she’d eventually end up at Elon.

The process to get in was difficult. After submitting her application and exam, she was one of 20 students gifted a scholarship to study at the school. The process to get there was even harder. The trip took nearly an hour, and while her parents dropped her off whenever they could, the distance often called for her to rely on her own two feet and public transportation. She’d take two buses and walk through San Jose’s red light district just to make it there.

In her eyes, the education was worth it.

In two years, her and her small class of 20 were responsible for learning enough German to understand both math and chemistry in the language. By the seventh grade, her class was mixed with both native and fluent German speaking students. Being exposed to a European education as well as the many different social economic classes and types of people broadened Muñoz’s worldview. Although she has since lost the German language, the character she built as a result of the school has stayed.

“People say Germans are cold, but I don’t think they’re cold,” she said. “I love German people. They’re very direct and that made me very direct in a lot of ways and more assertive.”

Over time, Muñoz began noticing differences between her and her sister who attended an all-girls Catholic school. After eighth grade, she decided she wanted a change and transferred to an all-girls Catholic high school as well. Though the change was drastic, she thinks it shaped her willingness to take risks.

Randy pullAt the Catholic school, she quickly linked up with a group of about 14 girls who in many ways became the leaders of the ninth grade.

“If we were going to get in trouble, it was us,” she said. “It was a group of like 15 of us that made a big noise. We were always in trouble, but in good trouble. And the nuns knew that if they wanted something done to give it to us and we would get it done. It was a good experience.”

By the end of her high school career, she was set in her pursuit of language and became an English major in college. Within the major were many exchange students from the U.S., England, and other English-speaking countries. That exposure furthered her comfortability around different groups of people.


Road to North Carolina

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Different groups of faculty and staff that Sylvia has brought to Costa Rica with her.

After graduating college, Muñoz came to the U.S. as part of her exchange program that worked with teaching students in the public school system. She spent two years in the mountains of North Carolina before transferring to a middle school in Burlington where she became acquainted with Fred Young, the 7th president of the university at the time, who she stayed with for six weeks.

She began coming to Elon to teach some of the Board of Trustees members Spanish, which planted the seed in Young’s head for the need of a Spanish center.

“I honestly don’t know how this man knew,” Muñoz said. “He started talking about the importance of learning Spanish and during that time, the Hispanic population wasn’t as big here at all. There were none. But somehow he knew that the demographics were going to change.

“He said if a student comes to this place half an hour every day, by their fourth year they’ll be able to hold a conversation. That’s going to open a lot of doors for them.”

Muñoz agreed that the thought in Young’s head was ideal, but it was the last year of her program and she was ready to return home. After selling everything, she arrived back in Costa Rica without a thought of a Spanish center at Elon ever coming to life.

Then she received the call that would permanently land her back in the U.S.

Young had surprising news: the Board of Trustees had approved the center and were ready to get to work on it with her leading the development. Feeling compelled to take the job, she was back in the U.S. within nine months.

What Young cleverly left out was that he was also in the midst of retiring.

“He said, ‘If I had told you this, would you have come?’” Muñoz recounted.  “And I said no. I would’ve said never mind, find somebody else.”

Knowing she wouldn’t have come back, she understood why he had originally withheld the
information. But fortunately, she had a supportive administrative team behind her. She only had a couple of months to figure something out. She decided on a pilot program of conversation classes. Faculty and staff from every department were hand-picked to participate in the classes during the summer.

“In the beginning that was interesting, especially with faculty,” Muñoz said. “They were like, ‘Mmm, I don’t know.’ But after a while they loved it. It was actually presented with a couple of faculty Munoz quotemembers in a conference about El Centro and the faculty as they were presenting said:

We have been faculty for such a long period of time that sometimes we forget what it’s like to be a student. And this experience has taught us that people learn in different ways.  It’s been a humbling experience for us as faculty. And we walk into a classroom now in a completely different way just because we also have the experience of a student in an environment where we have students next to us, and most of the time they’re better than us.

“I thought that was really nice and it created a different sense of community,” she continued. “At times I could have the Provost — at the time Dr. Francis — in the same class with the vice president of admissions and then have somebody from the physical in the same classroom. In the classroom, everybody was the same. There were no titles, there was no age. Everybody was just trying to learn.”

Because of the success of the pilot program, Sylvia and her team decided that the actual center would work with a mix of faculty, staff and students. According to her, it created a model that was not yet in existence and is still nonexistent anywhere else today.

The rest happened quickly with many students joining right away. Once they established a name for themselves, they began working with more world languages. Not long after, Elon added a language requirement for students which only added to the center’s success because more students were asking for help.

“The place has a lot of potential now,” she said. “In terms of growing it, I think it has grown to its capacity in the language area because there’s only one person that teaches the language. But I think there’s a lot of potential in growing in different ways, especially now being a part of the C.R.E.D.E. The place also became a home for the international Latino students who I took on as my kids. I think being from a different place made me very aware. It’s hard to be away from home. I adopt all the students.”


A mother, leader, and support system on campus

June Shuler was lost her first day on Elon’s campus. An international student from Switzerland, she hadn’t been able to visit the school prior to attending. Her knowledge of Elon relied on what she had read and saw in photos.

“I’ve never been to North Carolina, never visited Elon before,” Shuler said. “I was completely lost and I was walking around trying to find my way because I had somehow gotten the wrong schedule. I was walking around Elon aimlessly. I didn’t even go up to her.  She noticed that I didn’t know I was doing.”

“She” happened to be Sylvia Muñoz, someone who would become important Shuler throughout her next four years at the university. That day, Muñoz asked Shuler if she was alright and after realizing that she was lost, brought her back to El Centro to figure out where she needed to be.

“I came in late,” Shuler said. “But just the fact that she was willing to stop whatever she was doing that day to talk to me to make sure I was okay, I felt like that really impacted me to feel like there was someone that really cared about students on campus.”

Now a senior, Shuler has taken an active role in the international society and formed a closer relationship with Muñoz. She has sought Muñoz out for advice and has even worked with her to organize events targeted at international students.

“I think it just goes back to Sylvia’s character,” Shuler said. “She’s just really welcoming and open, so when she asks you how you’re doing, you’re almost compelled to share and be completely honest. She has an international perspective as well so we kind of share stories and have a bonding experience over that. I always talk about lived experiences. You can’t understand someone else’s experience unless you’ve gone through that yourself.”

Another student, junior Kara Rollock, has also come to appreciate Muñoz’s support. Her initial transition to Elon had been rough. As a minority student, she felt out of place at Elon. By the end of her first year, she was ready to try another school, but after some convincing from her mom, decided to give it another semester. During that time, she involved herself in more organizations to push herself to find comfort.

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Elon junior Kara Rollock

One of the tasks she took on was becoming a mentor for the S.M.A.R.T. program which connects incoming minority students to upperclassmen. That’s where she met Muñoz, who became her adviser after training in the spring.

“Honestly I would say that she treats me, and I think I can say for some of the other student coordinators as well, as though we’re her children,” Rollock said. “She’s just very motherly in the things that she does.”

She added that what Muñoz brings to the campus is connection. As they continued to bond, Rollock began to see her as more than a regular Elon faculty member.

“She just really, for me, has made Elon feel like home,” she said. “When I think of Sylvia, I think, ‘Okay I’m comfortable again.’ I don’t feel as if I don’t belong. I feel this is where I belong.”

Randy Williams, associate vice professor for campus engagement, said Muñoz has a natural knack for student affairs. Since joining the C.R.E.D.E., he has only seen her get better.

“When Sylvia came over here she was able to not only have more of Hispanic-Latino students come to the C.R.E.D.E., but she also brokered relationships with the black student as well and the black students sought her for support and advocacy,” Williams said. “That was really impressive. It shows that she’s able to cross cultures and races to help students and their development.”

According to him, her genuine care for her students is what makes her an asset to Elon’s campus.

“In these times of difficulty and unrest when it comes to marginalized students, people like Sylvia really emerged to the forefront,” Williams said. “We can’t pay her enough for what she brings.”

The many meaningful relationships Muñoz has been able to develop at Elon is what keeps her going. As much as she misses her family in Costa Rica, she said she knows she wouldn’t be able to find a job she likes as much back home.

“I love what I do in the Spanish center and even now what I do here in the C.R.E.D.E. as well,” she said. “You spend a lot of time at work so if you find something that you really, really love, you might as well stick to it.”

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