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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Recruiter Aimed For Diversity; She's Honored For Her Groundbreaking Work In Latin America
By SCOTT WILLIAMS
21 March 2005
Waukesha Trudging through the bitter cold of his first Wisconsin winter, 18-year-old Pablo Cardona decided that leaving his native Puerto Rico was a huge mistake.
"Get me . . . out of here," he recently recalled pleading with his parents.
Thirty winters later, Cardona is still here along with dozens of other transplanted Latinos who came to the Midwest for the chance to attend Carroll College during the 1970s and early '80s.
It was a time when Carroll was a leader in attracting young people from Latin America, largely because of the efforts of an aggressive recruiter named Shirley Hilger.
Today, many of Hilger's former recruits are regarded as leaders in the Milwaukee area: a school teacher, a business executive, an attorney, a college administrator, a community center director.
All of them are here because Hilger went looking for gifted teenagers in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere before most other small colleges recognized the potential of those students.
"Shirley was definitely ahead of the curve by a long way," said Carlos Garces, assistant dean of admissions at Marquette University.
The niche has long since been overtaken by competing colleges, and Hilger, now in her 80s and ill, has retreated into a quiet retirement. But her efforts will be recognized next month when a Hispanic community center in Milwaukee will organize a reunion of Carroll graduates and honor the Waukesha college for bringing ethnic diversity to Wisconsin.
Ricardo Diaz, executive director of the United Community Center in Milwaukee and himself a Carroll grad, said the private college's recruiting success broke down many barriers for Hispanics in the Milwaukee area in the '70s and '80s.
"What Carroll was able to do was erase that We can't find qualified Hispanics,' " Diaz said. "That phrase went away."
According to the college's estimates, 200 to 300 students enrolled at Carroll from distant places such as Peru and Colombia, as well as the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
At the peak of her activities, Hilger was bringing more than 20 Latino students a year to the Waukesha campus.
James Wiseman, Carroll's vice president of enrollment, described Hilger as "a ball of energy" who toured high schools throughout Latin America every year. She would visit students in their homes, meet their parents and send them letters.
"I think she saw way ahead of everybody else that diversity was important on a college campus," Wiseman said. "She was way ahead of her time."
But keeping her prized students in Wisconsin was not always easy. Although most were enticed by the adventure of visiting a new place and experiencing winter, some had second thoughts once they got here.
Sonia Hernandez Evans, who enrolled in 1973, recalled feeling alone and isolated during her first few months in Waukesha, where she struggled even to pronounce the city's name. But after graduating with an education degree, the Puerto Rico native landed a job with the Waukesha School District.
She and her husband now have two children, and she teaches sixth grade at a school where she is a veteran faculty member. "I've just been lucky," she said. "It was just like a fairy tale."
Other alumni include Jose Olivieri, a Milwaukee attorney who serves on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents; Robert Ulmer, an executive with utility contractor American Transmission Co.; and Cardona, vice president of human resources at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Cardona, who arrived from Puerto Rico in 1973, said the difficulty of adjusting to Wisconsin winters soon gave way to new friendships and organized activities on campus celebrating Hispanic culture.
After his bachelor's degree, Cardona added a master's degree from UW-Milwaukee, a doctorate from Marquette University and then a long career at MATC, which continues.
For many Latino students, their first images of Wisconsin came in Polaroid snapshots that Hilger used to pique their interest in the campus, with its comfortable classrooms and scenic outdoor landscapes. At the time, the four-year college had 1,200 students about half the number it has currently.
A graduate of Carroll herself, Hilger worked as a recruiter for many years before becoming dean of admissions in 1968 and beginning her regular excursions to Latin America. The tropical locales were pleasurable, but former colleagues say Hilger worked tirelessly to promote Carroll every chance she got before retiring in 1984.
"It was hard not to come," said Ulmer, who left Puerto Rico and enrolled in 1970. "She was so charming and persuasive, she sold me on this place."