Karen Menendez Coller grew up in El Salvador and began the process of immigrating to the United States at just five years of age. As a child she made several trips to the United States, and at 13 she finally settled in Los Angeles.
As she navigated her way through high school she thought she wanted to be doctor, but things changed. The immigration process gave her experiences that built the foundation for who she is today. Those experiences, along with a break from education in between undergraduate and graduate school, allowed her to discover her true passion: working with the Hispanic Community to help improve their lives.
“Every step that I took after that was always reflecting on my family, everything that they went through and my place as a person of Hispanic descent in this country,” she says.
Although these experiences shaped her as a person they didn’t lead directly toward the path of working with the Hispanic community. When she attended UC Berkeley she still thought she was preparing for a career as a doctor, but through her international travels she found the “public health bug” and discovered that she wasn’t interested in the medical side of public health. The social factors that drove her toward the other side of public health were education, self-perception in America, and economic empowerment. “Those types of things also influence your wellness and how strong you are as a person,” she says.
This type of public health became more relevant and important to her through her work in the public health field, so she decided to pursue a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. As life moved on, she and her husband were starting to grow their family, and they decided that LA wasn’t the best place to raise two little girls. So they packed up and moved to Wisconsin to be closer to family.
When she began to look for work in Madison she was initially going to take a position at UW-Madison, but after meeting with the board of Centro Hispano, a community organization with the goal “to improve the quality of lives of Latinos and others living in Dane County through high quality programming and services”, she fell in love with the board and liked the purpose of Centro Hispano. This prompted her to take the job as Executive Director of Centro Hispano in 2013.
The transition from Los Angeles to Madison has been tough for Coller because of the challenges that the Hispanic community faces in Madison. For example, in LA most Hispanic youth are natural born citizens whereas in Madison, undocumented Hispanic youth is a larger issue. Another issue is the vast achievement gap between Hispanic students and non-Hispanic, white students. To combat these issues Centro Hispano conducts youth and teen programs. The Juventud Program is a middle school program geared toward Latino and Spanish-speaking youth with the goal of providing academic engagement, parent involvement and leadership development to students and their families. They do this by providing services like tutoring, career cultural and leadership workshops, field trips, and guest speakers. A similar program, Escalera, focuses on Latino high school students but with an emphasis on career workshops, guest speakers, resume building workshops, ACT/SAT prep and summer internships. The organization also offers immigration services to families and individuals that includes consultation, naturalization, permanent residence, and DACA (deferred action). Through these programs Coller and Centro Hispano have been very successful in working with hundreds of Latino youth and Latino families helping them achieve academic success and giving them a strong support base to grow off of in Dane County.
In the future Coller hopes to continue her work work at Centro Hispano so she can further help the Latino community in Dane County. This is a place she hopes to change for the better so Madison can be a place where Latinos grow and flourish.