Oregon State University

A Place to Belong

When Susana Rivera-Mills was 12, her family fled their native El Salvador to travel to the United States for what they thought would be a temporary stay. They were escaping the brutal civil war that tore through El Salvador between 1979 and 1992 — a war that had brought violence to the streets and left Rivera-Mills uncertain whether she would see her mother again each day when she was dropped off at school.

The fighting continued long beyond the six months, and the family had had no choice but to start a new life in the U.S. None of the family members could speak English, and they had left El Salvador with only a suitcase each.

It was a shock for Rivera-Mills to be one of only a few Latino students in the small California town they moved to. The experience of dislocation as an immigrant in the U.S. would eventually prompt Rivera-Mills to create a professional life that would allow her to help others in the same situation.

Her experiences, Rivera-Mills says, created in her a desire to support those who lack a place to belong. As associate dean for Oregon State University’s College of Liberal Arts and interim director of the university’s new Center for Latin@ Studies and Engagement, she’s turned her difficult experiences into inspiration to give back to her community.

Driven to pursue education by her family’s struggles, Rivera-Mills shaped her career to support immigrant populations. With a doctoral degree in romance linguistics, she has been an advocate for the preservation of Spanish among Latino communities in the United States.

“My research looks closely at the variables that affect language maintenance and
loss in communities,” Rivera-Mills says. “I study community dynamics that help or hinder language use, and then share my findings with communities so that they can make informed decisions about their own language.”

With CL@SE, Rivera-Mills plans to expand Latino research by engaging multiple communities in studying Latino issues. The center’s mission is to promote research and outreach to advance knowledge and understanding of Latino contributions and issues surrounding the Latino population in the United States.

“We are interested in partnering with communities to co-create models in which the community needs are assessed and expressed, and then determine if and where Oregon State can serve to meet some of those needs,” Rivera-Mills says. “We hope to work with OSU Extension to get to know communities state-wide and develop programs around health issues and small business development.”    Read more of this story

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