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Teacher in Disguise

"It gives them a sense of belonging and who they are. That’s what’s going to motivate them to graduate and make it to the end.”
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Irene Encarnación, lecturer at NKU
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Irene Encarnación sees herself as the eyes and ears of the Latino community at Northern Kentucky University. 

“As an educator and activist, I speak out and loud when necessary,” she says. “I can manage a white board, a Zoom room or a bull horn all simultaneously. But my real mission is to disguise myself as a Spanish teacher to educate and raise our future Latino and non-Latino leaders.” 

As the senior lecturer of Spanish and Latino Studies celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month this year, she reflects on nearly 30 years at NKU. 

More specifically, Encarnación remembers NKU’s first Latino faculty member. 

“I often look back to 1992 to thank Dr. Adalberto Pinelo,” she says. “A national expert on Latin-American Affairs and chair of the Political Science department, Al Pinelo was our biggest mentor. He brought together the four Latinos on campus every other week to discuss the future of Latinos.”

"My real mission is to disguise myself as a Spanish teacher to educate and raise our future Latino and non-Latino leaders."

Things really took off after the creation of Latino Programs and Services (LPS) and the Latino Mentor Program (LAMP). Under the guidance of Leo Calderon, director of LPS, Latino students found a community where they could thrive. 

Students were also able to make connections through the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In fact, the first LULAC dinner was organized at NKU.

“Now we have a LULAC chapter at NKU, a LULAC awards ceremony and scholarships," Encarnación says. "That was another thing that linked us together. We have a long history with LULAC now.”

Encarnación says Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations truly began at NKU in 2001. And seven years later in 2008, NKU had its first DACA student graduate. 

“Before people were talking about DACA, we graduated our first undocumented student—an honors student,” she says. “He came back and did his master’s in education. When you see that kind of success, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’” 

Whether its through the LPS, LAMP, LULAC or other progams and resources, NKU has made an impact on students in the region. Encarnación has found that NKU is a popular university where students have been able to find themselves.

“Working together with NKU and having this community gives us the opportunity to not only educate students but also grow leaders," she says. "Latino leaders are coming out of NKU, so I can brag about that ... They didn’t really know how to identify themselves until they came to LAMP. It helps in many other ways than a mentor program. It gives them a sense of belonging and who they are. That’s what’s going to motivate them to graduate and make it to the end.”

About This Article

Lizzie Kibler
Lizzie Kibler ('16)
Contributor, NKU Magazine
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Published September 2020
Photography provided by Irene Encarnación
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