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Alumni Spotlight: Antonio R. Flores

Antonio R. Flores

After more than 20 years as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU), Antonio R. Flores offers his reflections on his graduate education at U-M and how that experience helped shape his career and the impact of his work.

Antonio felt called to pursue his passion for higher education, a calling that took him far from his home in Mexico to America’s Midwest. After completing a master’s at Western Michigan University (WMU), he knew a Ph.D. was the next course of action. Along the way, he developed interest and gained experience in the field of higher education while working at Hope College and attending WMU. U-M was the next logical step. “I chose Michigan because it had the best program of its kind at that time in terms of what I was looking for. I was fortunate to have been admitted here and to graduate.”

Antonio mentions his status as an immigrant because he says it implies “my native language is Spanish and like many immigrants, I found it difficult at the beginning to learn English as a second language, particularly as an adult. My status as an immigrant also meant I had to learn more about the educational system in this country. I did so in an organic way since I worked for the University of Wisconsin and Hope College for a number of years and learned about higher education while working.”

Life in graduate school posed new challenges for Antonio: “What made it more challenging for me was that, before graduating from WMU with my master’s, I got married and began to raise a family. As I look back, I wouldn’t change it for anything else in terms of the opportunity to do all of those things at the same time. I had no prior experience with either, so I thought it was okay to do it all together. I never thought it was out of the ordinary, but it definitely was a busy time for me.”

Regardless, he looks back at his U-M experience as a great one. “At U-M, people were very helpful, with everyone willing to support me in one way or another. My experience there was very rewarding. The learning I got out of the program was very helpful for my career and continues to be so. It was a very rewarding experience - I made new friends and some remain very good friends to date. I can’t say enough about how wonderful it was to me to go to U-M for my Ph.D.”

Antonio continued his career during grad school at the State of Michigan as the Director of Higher Education Programs, focusing on issues such as financial aid, research and policy analysis related to higher education. He says, “I pretty much applied what I was learning right away.” After around eight years with the State of Michigan, Antonio moved to a position that allowed him to have a nationwide impact, one he currently serves 20 years later.

“It was such a great coincidence that this position became available at the time when I was thinking of moving on to something else. I was lucky to get this position as the President and CEO of HACU,” he said, “My work at HACU entails responsibility for advocacy, policy, legislation and funding for universities. We also have a wealth of programs that help institutions graduate Latinos across the country, undertaking all of this in partnership with a variety of national organizations, agencies, corporations that believe in our mission. Working on these important responsibilities with a great group of leaders on our board of governors and a passionately dedicated team of HACU colleagues makes for a tremendously satisfying situation for me here.”

Even after two decades of dedicated work, Antonio says, “The mission of our organization remains vital to the nation. My commitment is the same. I’m engaged with same enthusiasm I had twenty years back. The gains we’ve made over the last 20 years are just the beginning. Having been part of the formative years of this organization and developing the foundation for this thriving association makes me realize that its best years are yet to come. I’m very happy, rewarded, and fulfilled here.”

Antonio has the perspective to reflect on some significant accomplishments at HACU. He witnessed the growth and enhancement of HACU’s membership base from around 160 members to 480+ member institutions. “That is the foundation of what we do. Our members work with students and support our work. I am proud of our loyal and committed membership base.” He hasn’t done it alone, and credits the continued excellence provided by each Governing Board cohort as tremendously helpful in guiding HACU’s work and supporting the organization. “It is a reflection on the excellent teamwork that our association carries out with our outstanding staff and exemplary members of the board who guide implementation of our strategic plan.”

His ultimate accomplishment takes place every year: “At end of the day, to me, the one thing that elicits the most happiness is to see at commencement time the thousands of smiling faces of graduates and their families, many of them who are first-generation students or immigrants like I am who are achieving their dream of a higher education. For us to be part of that is very special.”

Still, he reflects that there are a number of issues that remain very challenging: “One of course is that as much as we have achieved great results in increasing the rate of Latino success in higher education, Hispanics still remain at the lowest level of educational attainment compared to all other ethnic groups in America. We need to close that gap. We need to make sure policy makers understand the tremendous importance of closing such a gap, because Latinos are increasingly becoming the backbone of the American labor force. Educating our workforce well is essential to being competitive in our global economy. We need to persuade those who decide on funding and legislation that this is important for the entire country.”

Going one step further, it is crucial to educate the public at large about the significance of this issue for the well-being of the entire nation. He says, “Programmatically, there are opportunities and challenges ahead that involve greater collaboration between colleges, universities and K-12 schools that enroll large numbers of Latinos. The success rate of K-12 has been enhanced and the readiness of high school graduates has improved, but there is plenty of room to build on those collaborations for even greater improvements.”

He continues, “As to other challenges, there is the persistent issue of Latino leadership underrepresentation in higher education. Latino administrators are few and far between; we need to develop a pipeline of Latino leadership to improve higher education.”

Antonio’s advice to graduate students is to reach out to others and make as many connections as possible when you go through your program. He says, “Connect with peers, professors, staff, and find people who share common ground so you have the most robust network of support and people you can support as well. You need to feel connected and grounded in the campus community and be part of it in every possible way.”

He continues with a special message to international students: “In my case, although I came from Mexico, I was a resident of the U.S. when I started my graduate education. For international students in general, it is critical that you don’t stay isolated within your national origin groups or friends only, but really try to enrich your experience by connecting with people from other languages and cultures – and with the U.S. population as a whole. Learn as much as possible about this country and its great institutions. Step out of your comfort zone in terms of international backgrounds and enrich your life that way. It is important to also establish relationships that can be helpful to you as an international student and you can be helpful as well. You never know, as an international student, how those networks may become one of your main assets for life.”

When he reflects on his years in Ann Arbor, he says, “What I recall most vividly and with a great deal of gratitude is mainly the people. Peers, classmates, academic advisors, my dissertation committee and staff and professors – these were the people who were closest to me throughout my journey there.”

But the most important people in his life were at home: “I had family at the time, and my wife was most supportive. Maria was the one in charge of the household. She made it possible for me to concentrate on my studies and work. I owe a great debt of gratitude to her and my children for their support.”