An Exponential Impact
College, much less graduate school, was just not in Viviana Casillas’s future, or so she thought.
“As a child, I knew my education was only going to go as far as elementary school,” Casillas said. “We would have to pay for middle school. For my family to choose to pay for middle school for my older sister and me, and to travel 5 kilometers to the nearest town and provide food … that was not going to be possible. Even with my father working in the States, money was stretched very thin.”
At the age of 9, though, Casillas, along with her siblings and mother, migrated to Colorado to reunite with her father.
“Once we came to ‘el norte’ (The North-The United States) we arrived in Colorado. My father and mother were strong proponents of doing well in school and always expected us to do our best. During many dinner conversations, my father emphasized that although we were better economically than in our hometown, he wanted us to finish high school, but that was as far as he could help,” she explained. “If we could finish high school, their efforts would not have been in vain, however, they would not be able to help us go to college. With their salary that was not possible. He was clear on how much he could give us and we knew that only with a miracle were we going to go to college. If there was a chance, I wasn’t going to let go of it.
“I still remember the words he said to us, ‘cuando todos terminen la escuela, nos regresamos a Mexico’ — ‘when you all finish school, we will go back to Mexico’. As much as I wanted to go back, I also wanted to go further in my education. I didn’t want to work in the fields as I did when I was a child with my father and older sister,” she said.
That seed of determination sprouted, driving Casillas through a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at the University of Colorado in Denver.
She had been working in libraries for more than 10 years by the time she graduated with her bachelor’s and knew she wanted to pursue librarianship. Nervous about the expenses of pursuing a master’s and the idea of online learning, though, she wasn’t quite ready to take a step toward graduate school yet.
Fast forward two years to 2014, and she had a renewed interest. Through involvement in the Third REFORMA CO Conference held in the Denver Public Library, Casillas learned about the School of Library and Information Management at Emporia State University.
“My mentor and library manager at the time, Pilar Castro-Reino, presented me to David Willis, and he gave me his card and suggested we talk about the program and whether this program was a good fit for me. I followed up with an email and call, and I set up a time to meet and talk about my goals and aspirations,” Casillas said. “David was very welcoming and informative, and he spoke about Emporia with such passion. There was no doubt I wanted to do my graduate work at Emporia State University.”
Prior to this discussion, one of her fears was that graduate school would severely limit the time she was able to spend with her family. The more Casillas learned of ESU’s hybrid format in the School of Library and Information Management, the more that fear subsided. She would be able to complete the bulk of the school work entirely online, and only be at ESU’s site in Denver occasionally for an intensive weekend.
“I wanted to spend time with my three kids and husband, and the online experience offered that opportunity. I won’t deny that I was apprehensive and scared, as my previous online studies were not successful, however I gave it my best to ensure it would be different this time. To do online work and still have time to meet with the instructors during the in-person sessions was a plus, and the fact that I was able to work at the library and still do my schoolwork was an important factor when making my decision to attend ESU,” she explained.
Casillas decided to enroll and soon began her cohort-style program through ESU.
“My graduate experience was great. I never thought I would be able to accomplish all the work in two years. If anything, I thought it would take me another 10 years to finish as I did for my undergraduate,” she said. “The cohort I was with worked great together. We were very close with each other and created amazing relationships that to date, we still have. The instructors were amazing. I never had such a connection with an instructor as I did with Emporia State. The instructors were flexible, knowledgeable, and encouraged everyone to do their best. This program was more than I had expected.”
While working on her MLS degree, Casillas became the program administrator for the Career Online High School, which she still oversees. She has also been deliberate in taking over other positions in an effort to give more back to her community.
“In my career development, I am now the president of the Colorado Chapter of REFORMA CO and continue to build awareness for services to Hispanic/Latino and the Spanish speaking in our community. I took other leadership roles in my ‘spare’ time due to the learnings I had in the SLIM program. My next goal is to continue to grow within the organization that has supported me through the years, the Denver Public Library, and take on new challenges as a manager, when the time comes,” she said.
Her degree has allowed her to learn and grow in a field that she loves, and she may not be done yet.
“Overall, I loved the experience at ESU, from the time I met with David, the instructors, the learning and the connections. I still connect with David and Emporia through REFORMA CO. The time at Emporia were years I will never forget; they have contributed to the person I am today,” she said. “This program exceeded my expectations and gave me more than what I would have expected. At one point, it sparked my interest in pursuing a Ph.D. … Who knows, I may be able to do it if I have ESU on my side again!”