Multicultural Upbringing Helps Director of Graduate Student Services Connect with Students

Marina Melendez, ’83, MALS ’88, is the director of Graduate Student Services and the program’s biggest advocate.
Posted 06/15/05

Marina Melendez ‘83 was raised by a German-speaking mother and Spanish-speaking father in Five Towns, Long Island, N.Y. She didn’t speak a word of English until the age of 7.

“After my first day of school, my mother said I came home and refused to speak any more German,” she says. “And from that day on, English would be the language in our home.”

Melendez, however, never let go of her German and Puerto Rican roots. During her undergraduate years at Wesleyan, she majored in Spanish and minored in German. And to this day, the director of Graduate Student Services (GSS) uses her multicultural background and language skills to aid current Wesleyan graduate students.

“The graduate students can feel comfortable with me, especially the international students, because I can relate to what they’re going through,” she says.

Only 15 graduate students received their undergraduate degree from Wesleyan. About half of Wesleyan 200 graduate students come from nations other than The United States.

Melendez became the director of GSS. Prior to that, she worked as a director of a job training program for welfare clients in New Britain, taught Spanish and history in Madison, Conn., and worked as a coordinator for the Community Action of Greater Middletown. During her college years at Wesleyan, Melendez supervised tutors and worked at the Adult Learning Center.

Social work also is a vital part of Melendez’s job here at Wesleyan. But her foremost role is serving as the primary advocate for graduate students, most of whom are pursuing master’s and Ph.D degrees in the sciences or music.

“So much of my work is to bring the Graduate Studies Program to the front of people’s minds,” she says. “They’re not a large group, but they’re here, and my job is to remind the Wesleyan community of their presence, and to improve the life and services for the students.”

Melendez works with other offices on campus makes sure the students have comfortable housing, are offered transportation if necessary, register for classes correctly and feel safe.

Latorya Hicks, a graduate student studying chemistry, says Melendez eased her transition from Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. to Wesleyan. At first, Hicks went to the director for questions pertaining to the bureaucracy of graduate school. This relationship has since flourished into a friendship.

 “Marina has truly been a great asset and was there to lend a listening ear when ever I needed to talk about the many trials of graduate school,” Hicks says. “I am eternally grateful to have met someone so dedicated, genuine, and concerned when it comes to the well-being of her graduate students.”

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Melendez has devoted more of her time towards immigration procedures. She insures that students arrive with all their necessary documents and visas.

“We have to keep their transition as smooth as possible so they can come here, settle in, and then focus on their career here,” she says. “These are students who want to be here. They are mature and are very appreciative about the education they are about to receive.”

Melendez says students are attracted to Wesleyan’s graduate program for its one-on-one access to faculty, small departments and nationally-recognized research facilities.

“If you want to get master’s or Ph.D in something general, there are several larger universities they can go to. But if you want to do specific research, this is where you want to be,” she says.

Melendez networks with Wesleyan’s staff and faculty to improve student services. She’s served on the Honor Code Task Force, Student Life Committee, Student of Color Perspectives and Action Committee (SOCPAC), the Executive Committee for the Administrators and Faculty of Color (AFCA) and Graduate Housing Committee. 

Dianna Dozier, associate director of Affirmative Action co-chaired AFCA with Melendez for several years.

“Marina is so wonderful to work with,” Dozier says. “ She is smart, funny, and cares so much about all students at Wesleyan, not just the grad students or students of color. The grad students are indeed lucky to have her looking out for them. Her efforts on behalf of all students are tireless.”

Although the individual departments oversee applications and admit the graduate students, Melendez and her assistant, Barbara Schukoske act as the registrar for these students. They also update student portfolios, make sure grades are posted, answer any questions students might have, either through e-mail, phone or in-person, and monitor a graduate student e-mail list serve and assist them through commencement procedures.

In addition, Melendez started and annually spearheads a graduate student orientation day in fall “to get all practical matters out of the way,” she says. “We want to acclimate students as quickly as possible.”

Michael Whaley, dean of Student Services, says he often collaborates with Melendez to better understand the needs and issues of students of color, and improve the campus community for all students. They discuss graduate and undergraduate issues alike.

“I appreciate her collaborative spirit and respect the passion and dedication she brings to working with the graduate student population,” Whaley says. “Her love for Wesleyan and commitment to making this a better community for the students extend beyond her own specific duties and responsibilities. I value her opinions.”

Melendez monitors the success of her department by the number of inquiring students.

“In the fall, students are still confused and they come in with all sorts of questions and problems,” she says. “By spring, we don’t see them too much, and that tells us that we’ve done a good job. That means they’ve adjusted.”

Melendez has continued her own education as well. She earned a MALS degree from Wesleyan in 1988, and is currently pursuing her Ph.D in educational studies at the University of Connecticut 

Melendez met her partner, Joseph Virgadula ‘80 at Wesleyan. The couple has two boys, Louis, 15, and Tomas, 13, and live in Middlefield. When she’s not attending their baseball, soccer and Lacrosse games, mother Marina is busy cooking or gardening.

This busy lifestyle has taught Melendez a life-lesson that she would like to pass on.

“If I ever do end up teaching, it will have to be a class on time management. I’ve gotten very good at it,” she says, smiling.

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor