Emory Report
February 16, 2009
Volume 61, Number 20



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February 16
, 2009
Breaking out of the box

By Carol Clark

Simona Perales is used to standing out in a crowd. She was raised in Columbus, Wisconsin, a tiny town with few Hispanics. Her parents had left their rural homes in Mexico to work as migrant laborers in the United States, eventually settling in the Midwest, where they found factory jobs.

“My dad really embraced life in small-town, middle America,” says Perales, a senior advisor in the Office of Admission. “Columbus has a beautiful park, and a Fourth of July parade with lots of fireworks. It also has a great school system.”

It wasn’t easy, however, to be the only Hispanic in her elementary school class. “It was hard dealing with being one of the smartest kids in the class, and an ethnic minority,” she recalls. “I was an easy target for bullies because I was so obviously different. There was no hiding that I had brown skin.”

Despite being different, Perales excelled in school and developed a healthy sense of identity. Colorful Mexican blankets drape the chairs in her office in B. Jones Center. A John Deere calendar hangs on the wall behind her. “I’m still very much the Midwestern girl,” she says, laughing.

Perales first came to Emory in 1994, as a student. “I liked that Emory was in a big city that was home to so many civil rights leaders,” she says.

The financial aid process, however, was daunting: Perales had to manage all the details, since her parents did not understand the process and were not confident with English. Perales completed three semesters, then had to take one off. The stress of college, while dealing with the complexities of finances, became too much.

“I am so grateful that one of the financial aid officers tracked me down,” Perales says. “He said, ‘Do you want to come back to school?’ I got choked up and said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He told me, ‘Then you and I are going to figure out how to make this work.’ Suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore.”

Perales returned and immersed herself in her major, Theater Studies. She worked with EN-ACT, a program that brought actors to inner-city schools to perform scenes on topics like HIV and pregnancy prevention. Afterwards, the actors stayed in character and took questions from the audience.

“The more I did this work, the more I realized that we have a responsibility as adults to listen to young people, learn from them, and try to guide them through a very tough time,” Perales says.

After graduating, Perales managed a community center in Wisconsin, before deciding that she missed Atlanta. In 2006, she found her dream job at Emory, working as a senior admission advisor, with a special focus on recruiting Latino/Hispanic students. Only about 5 percent of Emory College students are Hispanic, but a campus-wide effort is under way to increase that percentage, Perales says. Faculty, staff and administrators are behind the drive to recruit Latinos, both at the local and national levels.

“Emory is a place where you can have hope that big changes are possible and will happen,” Perales says. Especially for new immigrants, the hope of achieving the highest levels of education can be an emotionally charged topic.

“Sometimes when I go to an event targeted at Latino students, people break down in tears,” she says. “I remember a dad who was so overwhelmed with emotion for his son, after I explained how Emory could be financially feasible for him.”

From California to New York, from small towns to big cities, from new immigrants to people with U.S. roots going back centuries, Perales loves learning the stories of the Latino students she encounters around the country.

“It’s important for people to understand that Latino culture is not just one thing,” she says. “It’s all different colors and shapes and economic backgrounds. I’m a Buddhist who was raised Roman Catholic. My boyfriend is African American. I listen to hip-hop and I know just about every cumbia out there. It’s exciting, how everything has changed so fast from my parents’ generation.”