By Sarah Knapp | Photos by Steven Mantilla
When Nancy Sanchez (Martin ’16) applied to UT Martin in 2011, Hispanic students accounted for only 1.6 percent of the total undergraduate population, and she quickly found there were very few resources available to help her succeed as a minority student.
As the daughter of Hispanic immigrants who did not go to college and, for the most part, only speak Spanish, Sanchez knew higher education would be a challenge that she and her older sister would have to face on their own. From struggling to understand her parents’ tax documents for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to not receiving the academic support she needed to find a major she was passionate about, Sanchez and her sister relied on each other to navigate challenges.
“I don’t remember coming on a campus tour, honestly, when I came to UT Martin. I didn’t know what questions to ask. I relied on my sister, she relied on me, and we just had to navigate everything together without the help of my parents,” Sanchez explains. “Even looking at their tax documents was difficult, but we were like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this. We’re going to make it.’ I feel like having (a bilingual counselor) would have helped tremendously and would have taken a lot of the stress away from us.”
Now in her second year as the first bilingual admissions coordinator in the UT System, Sanchez has become the resource and support for prospective and current Hispanic students that she and her sister wanted as students. While she is still young in her professional career at UT Martin, the impact of Sanchez’s warmth, authenticity and desire to see her students succeed has changed the collegiate experience for Hispanic and Latino students.
“She is very passionate about working with all students but just has a special heart for Hispanic students,” Destin Tucker, director of undergraduate admissions, says.
Sanchez takes the time to ensure the needs of every Hispanic student on campus are met. Through creating Spanish resource guides that document available financial aid with important deadlines, acting as a translator for parents during campus tours, organizing events with the Latino/Hispanic Student Association or just being available for counseling at any hour, Sanchez has helped foster a community for Hispanic students on campus.
“Helping Hispanic families is something that I really enjoy just because I know they’re struggling,” Sanchez says. “I know they need help. If there is something I can do, I’m going to help them.”
When students don’t know what questions they need to ask or who to ask for help, Sanchez advocates for them with every office on campus.
“Some of the students have questions that they do not want to ask just anyone because of the fear they will be criticized or looked down on,” she says. “I am constantly telling them that I am here to ask the questions they need (for them). There is information out there for them and just to make sure to ask questions.”
Sanchez knows how difficult it can be to overcome the challenges many minorities face and has found ways to relate to each student she mentors.
She grew up in a Hispanic community in California and, before moving to Tennessee, lived in Mexico for several months with family. Being raised in a Spanish-speaking household came with many responsibilities Sanchez had to handle at a young age, such as acting as a translator for her parents, including at doctors’ appointments and business meetings.
“I believe my experiences have prepared me well because I understand their background. I have experienced very similar issues and have been a part of very similar lifestyles. I can relate to these students through family stories, background, music, food and so much more, which leads these students to view me as not only the person with knowledge about scholarships or the admissions process but also as an ally and, most importantly, a friend,” Sanchez says.
Sanchez came into this position with a love for helping students and their families understand the processes of being admitted and attending UT Martin. While she focuses on enrolling the student, she also understands how important it is to gain the parents’ trust and does so by sharing her testimony in their own language to reassure them their child will not only succeed but also be safe.
One prospective student with whom Sanchez worked was concerned about how her parents would react to the idea of her going to college. After meeting Sanchez, they were sold.
“They were relieved that they could speak with someone in Spanish and even expressed how comfortable they were to allow their daughter to come to UTM after speaking with me,” Sanchez says. “They knew that there were good people here but felt better knowing that I relate to them and would be an advocate for their daughter.”
Trevor Smith (Martin ’11), campus visit coordinator, says, through Sanchez’s guidance, the university is becoming more aware of how important it is to reach Hispanic students and provide equal opportunities for them.
“She’s very passionate about helping this population of students, frankly, because Nancy has experienced it herself and has seen ﬁrsthand that minority students do not get the same opportunities that other students do,” Smith says. “Having her on board has really helped all of us see that and come to understand it in a way that now we can actually combat it. We can be proactive.”
As of fall 2020, Hispanic students now make up 3.5 percent of the Skyhawk population with more than 200 students on campus. These statistics also reﬂect Tennessee’s growing Hispanic population, which accounted for 5.7 percent of Tennesseans in 2019 and is an increase from the 4.6 percent population in 2012. A study conducted by the University of Tennessee Center for Business and Economic Research in 2012 showed the Hispanic population in Tennessee was the third-fastest Hispanic growing population rate in the nation and has continued to increase through the years.
“We have a growing Hispanic population, and so I think it’s the right time to have her position,” Tucker said. “If we have a growing Hispanic population, we need to be ready to serve them, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Before Sanchez arrived at UT Martin, Audeliz Figueroa Guzman, a junior secondary education major from Puerto Rico, says she wasn’t sure the school was right for her. After working with Sanchez, she can’t imagine going anywhere else.
“I was pretty alone. Really nobody speaks Spanish here—well, just a couple of people—so after I met her, my life completely changed,” Guzman says.
Sanchez led Guzman to the Latino/Hispanic Student Association. “That helped me not feel alone. That helped me to know that, if I need help, I have her to help me.”
“After I talk a little about my history, it is interesting to see how these students open up,” Sanchez says. “Once they open up, I can see their strengths, and I can see how they can ﬁt into different organizations or events and simply how I can help them while they are at UTM to get the best experience that they can receive.”
Having Sanchez advocate for her has been a source of comfort when she needs help working with administrative offices on campus or even when another student made insensitive comments toward Guzman about her citizenship. Sanchez fights for the Hispanic students on campus “with a righteous fury,” says Smith, to make sure each person feels safe and a sense of belonging.
“I feel like someone cares about me at this school. Somebody really wants me to achieve my goals here,” Guzman says. “She’s my angel here at UT Martin.”
The bilingual admissions coordinator position was created in response to the Coleman Opportunity Scholarships funded by Martha Coleman Edinger (Martin ’84), now a resident of Sarasota, Florida, but formerly of Weakley and Obion counties, to celebrate and encourage diversity on campus and offer financial support to Hispanic, Asian and African American students.
After establishing the new resources for minority students, admissions and the Office of Student Life and Multicultural Affairs created a coordinator position to recruit Hispanic students to UT Martin and continue supporting their academic and personal goals throughout their college education.
“This position, I feel like, is a huge step forward because education is important,” says Sanchez. “By having someone here who is able to communicate with Hispanic families, it shows that the university cares for these families—not only cares for the students but also their families and making sure that those students are cared for while they are here. It’s a great step.”