After she graduated from college, she wanted to save the world. Today, Michele Soliz serves as the
associate vice president for Student Success & Inclusion at the University of Toledo, where she oversees student affairs, the Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women, provides leadership to the Office of EXCEL and the Upward Bound program.
In acknowledgement of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, Soliz is being recognized for her contribution to helping students of color succeed at UT.
Soliz, who entered college with plans of becoming a teacher, later grew concerned with race relations in the United States after learning about Rodney King’s brutal beating during her college years.
Growing up in a bicultural home with a Mexican father and a white mother, Soliz easily embraced her identity. Upon entering college, however, she became aware of the different experiences people of color went through, Soliz said.
She added her father was among those people, who encountered discrimination in their town and at work.
“Since I look white, I don't find myself in those situations,” Soliz said. “I find myself understanding what other people go through…I kind of have that gift for being able to explain to people who look like me, do you realize that those thoughts and actions are harmful?”
While attending Bowling Green State University as an undergraduate, Soliz encountered an experience that made her think about her bicultural identity when a girl asked her who her father was in her family pictures.
“I said that's my dad and she asked, ‘Why do you tell people that, you could pass.’” Soliz said.
More people told her she could leave her Hispanic identity behind, something she had never experienced before.
In her senior year, when she became the president of the Latino Student Union, she often heard students make comments, questioning her Hispanic identity.
“One of my friends and I were in the elevator where two students were speaking in Spanish and she heard them say ‘what is she, she's white, why is she the president’ and the other person responded, ‘she's half.’” Soliz said.
Growing up in Defiance among other Latinos, Soliz said she never had to explain her identity to anyone before. Her mother always encouraged her to embrace both identities.
“One of the things she told me was, don't let anybody call you Spanish,” Soliz said. “You're Mexican. Some people think Spanish is cleaner than the word Mexican.”
While she didn't understand her mother’s advice at the time, she realizes her mother helped her become proud of she is.
Her whole life, Soliz said she tried to categorize what was Mexican and what wasn’t.
While visiting her father’s parents’ house, she found Mexican red cinnamon disc candy that her mother’s parents didn’t have. As a child, she categorized the candy as Mexican since it was spicy.
“I used that as an example of constantly going through life and categorizing OK this is Mexican and this is not Mexican,” Soliz said. “Those were things I thought internally when I went to college - learning how to react to other people seeing my two sides.”
Upon graduating BGSU with a bachelor of arts in Ethnic Studies, Soliz worked with inner city youth for the Red Cross and later became a probation officer working with adults.
She decided to go back to school and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from UT in higher education, where her research focused on Latino student baccalaureate completion rates and student engagement.
"I learned to fly as a Falcon, but today, I soar as a Rocket," Soliz said.
She first started as an adviser for engineering at UT, but her goal was to end up as a director of a multicultural office.
“When I talk about kind of my purpose, I think it is being able to help other people to think different about their thoughts and actions,” Soliz said.
Her almost 20 years of experience in higher education has allowed her to remain involved in key roles ensuring student success. In collaboration with others, Soliz increased the usage and visibility of academic support services that help retain students and lead to graduation.
She said her identity gives her the best of both worlds – a rich culture and the ability to explain the importance of it.
“I'm absolutely privileged by the fact that I walk in this skin every day and I'm able to explain to other people, but bring attention to problems,” Soliz said. “I feel like I'm able to use my privilege to help the other side of my identity.”
Her advice to Latino students at UT is to get involved in either PRIMOS, a mentorship program, LSU or to “just hangout here in the office.”
Soliz has been recognized two years for her commitment to students of color at the Annual Women’s Gala and even received the Outstanding Woman of the Year award by the University Women’s Commission.
"I feel like I'm doing the work that I always thought I would do,” she said. “At the end of the day, I'm here to make sure that our students of color graduate.”
This year, she received the Diamante Award that honors Latino leadership and achievements in northwest Ohio. Soliz accepted the award in memory of her grandparents.
In her speech she said, “I'm very lucky to be able to work with students who are going to change the world. It's a blessing to be able to be a part of their journey.”