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Hundreds of Students and 34 Years
Oscar Luján has spent decades at the UA working to improve student access to higher education. This week marks his retirement.
When Oscar Luján took his first job at the University of Arizona in 1979 to work in the mailroom, he did not foresee that he would be known decades later for his work improving students’ access and success.
In 1990, Luján started volunteering for UA Hispanic Alumni, or UAHA, an organization devoted to connecting University alumni through networking events while also raising scholarship money for students.
Luján started off helping to sell merchandise and review scholarship applications for UAHA, but soon he was mentoring students and serving as corresponding secretary, an officer position on the UAHA board. In 2000, he was appointed to his current executive director position.
“I found that it was a good fit, and when you have a good fit, you take off,” Luján said, recently sitting in his half-empty office in the Marvin D. Swede Johnson Building on the threshold of his retirement from the UA.
After a 34-year commitment to the University, Luján retires on Nov. 16.
In addition to UAHA, Luján also served as program coordinator for the UA Alumni Association’s multicultural clubs and scholarship program. In doing so, he has collaborated with the UA Black Alumni Club, American Indian Alumni Club and the Asian American Faculty, Staff and Alumni Association.
"Oscar has been here such a long time. He has incredibly deep roots in our alumni community, and that goes across all multicultural and alumni groups," said Melinda Burke, president and executive director of the UA Alumni Association.
Over the years, Luján has heard it all: Students have been unable to pursue studies because they did not have enough aid; students’ work hours have cut into their time for study; certain students have spent more than four years because they were unable to get into a class or decided to spend some time exploring majors.
No matter the challenge or barrier, Luján has felt compelled to help and better prepare students not only for their lives at the UA, but beyond. That is his passion, Burke said.
"In a way, he has supported this feeling of family with all the multicultural clubs," Burke said.
"It is important for that continuity; the feeling of family means the connection will be lifelong," she said. "This value is something he spent a lot of time developing with the students, the multicultural clubs and all of the Alumni Association."
Also to better support the students, Luján and his staff have long coordinated a range of programs and support, boosting the graduation rate from about 50 percent to nearly 80 percent.
Once each month, students attend leadership sessions during which they are trained how to communicate in formal environments, such as business meetings and interviews.
They also learn about UA academic and social resources along with appropriate ways to study and how to speak in public. Some of the key partners have been the UA’s multicultural centers, the Think Tank and Career Services; and also Toastmasters, Macy’s and JCPenney, Luján said, adding that students also have had opportunities to meet and speak with elected officials and lawyers.
"Most of the times he works in ways students don't know because he's not to work for attention. He goes above and beyond in terms of encouraging, directing and being a great resource for students," said Socorro Carrizosa, the UA's Chicano/Hispano Student Affairs program director.
"He's an individual who goes out of his way – whether it is in his job description or not – if you need something," Carrizosa said, adding that the center will be gifting Luján with a medal that represents an elite group of Aztec warriors.
"It represents how much he would strive for students so that, no matter their background or who they are, they could be excellent," she added.
In addition to supporting students, Luján and his staff engage alumni from around the globe in networking, community and recognition events.
“It’s all about being successful after the UA,” Luján said. “I want them to be happy and tenacious; to keep striving for success and also to have the tools to make them successful in their chosen careers.”
Part of Luján’s own experience is close to some of the students he has helped over the years. Luján initially took an interest in working at the UA because he hoped to be able to receive the benefit of a discounted tuition rate.
Even then, it took him years to complete his degree in political science.
Between working often from 4:30 a.m. to about noon and helping to raise his family – he has a daughter and a son, who is now a UA freshman – Luján often had to take three or six units at a time.
In that way, he can directly connect to the needs of students, whether financially, academically, socially or emotionally.
“What they need are mentors, and they need to know that people are there supporting them,” said Luján, who began his studies at the UA in 1990, earning his political science degree in 2009.
Jose Vargas said his connection to Luján and UAHA has helped him in various areas of life.
“It has been helpful on an academic, social, and professional level,” said Vargas, a UA senior studying psychology. “Everyone is always there to help us.”
Luján helped Vargas, who would like to pursue a medical degree and a career in pediatrics, to gain an internship, which led to him shadowing physicians at Tucson-area hospitals and clinics.
“I’m the first in my family to attend college, so for me it’s been a very, very wonderful experience and not just being a college student, but attending a prestigious school,” Vargas said, adding that the financial support alone was so impactful.
“Oscar totally made a difference in my academic performance and boosted my confidence,” he said. “He’s a great individual; has a great heart and a great personality. He’s worked with so many students over the years and assisted us in unique ways.”
Rene Corella, a UA architecture senior, first met Luján while still a high school student. Corella had learned about UAHA through a friend who had already been accepted to the UA and named a Hispanic Alumni Scholar.
Corella was anxious to make the connection, especially because he was in an intermediate position – he was in the process of being approved for permanent residency and, therefore, could not qualify for aid.
He had two options: return to Mexico as a legal U.S. resident and soon-to-be permanent resident to pursue higher education studies there, or rely on student loans. Corella preferred neither at the time.
“Architecture was one of the best programs, and that was one of the main things that attracted me to pursue the degree,” Corella said.
As soon as his approvals became official, and with Luján’s help, Corella was able to immediately apply for aid, being approved just in time for his freshman year at the UA.
“Anyone who knows Oscar, even at a superficial level, knows that he is a great person, and certainly a humble man. He is there to help people,” Corella said.
“My financial situation would have been extenuated if not for Oscar,” he said. “I think I would have ended up here at the UA eventually, but I think I would have had to make use of loans and other resources.”
But another challenge arose for Corella, one that Luján also was able to address.
The UA’s architecture program runs for five years, but Corella often only found aid that would span a four-year period. However, UAHA offers aid for fifth-year students, a priority Luján has long emphasized.
“We need to make sure we are supporting our fifth-year seniors,” Luján said, adding that about two dozen UAHA scholars are fifth-year students. “We understand that these students need more than four years of support.”
In his retirement, and given his 34-year experience at the University, Luján now endeavors to pursue a master’s degree in library science.
“I love the UA,” Luján said. “It’s beautiful to be here."