Natalie Figueroa ’18 talks to NER intern Haley Hutchinson ‘23.5 about her current work in college admissions and the stories that continue to inspire her.
Haley Hutchinson: When were you an intern at NER and what was the most valuable experience you had while interning?
Natalie Figueroa: I was an intern at NER the summer of 2016, between my sophomore and junior years. That summer holds a special place in my heart. The previous summer I attended the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference with the student scholarship to pursue a budding interest in literary translation. Fast forward to 2016, and my time at NER included fiction submissions reading and a project on verifying translation sources for an essay to be published in that fall’s edition (I still have that copy on my bookshelf). I most valued the wonderful mentorship from Marcy, Carolyn, and my co-intern, Elana. My background was primarily in Spanish nonfiction/translation, but they welcomed me with open arms to expand my knowledge and inject my interests into that summer’s projects.
HH: You recently began working in admissions at Wellesley College after leaving the admission department at Middlebury. Did you always see yourself working in this field after graduating? What do you like most about your job and where do you see yourself in five years?
NF: When I first arrived to Midd in 2014, I definitely did not think I would work in higher education! In retrospect, I see all the moments that ultimately drew me to the field. I came to Middlebury through the Discover Middlebury fly-in program for underrepresented students in higher education and subsequently pursued my work study position in the admissions office for my entire college career. As an International and Global Studies–Latin American studies major, many of my class projects either centered on education or linguistic anthropology (my senior thesis covered both), and I had the opportunity to pursue those interests during my post-grad life at the Middlebury Admissions Office. Now nearly four years after graduation, I’ve started my new position at Wellesley College with a portfolio expanding into international admissions and an upcoming access program—both opportunities fueling my academic and personal passions.
Life in college admissions gave me the opportunity to connect with hundreds of students as they navigate the next step in their education journey. As a first-generation college graduate, I enjoy the candid and honest conversations with students during the college search process because those same conversations helped me wrap my head around a world that, back in 2013, was so foreign to me. The connection with students is what I enjoy most from my job, and it’s what has kept me in the field since graduation. Ideally, I aim to stay in college admissions for at least five more years to see at least one class through a full cycle (prospective student, current student, and graduate). It’s exciting yet surreal to think that the first class I admitted at Middlebury (class of 2023 & 2023.5) will be graduating in a year and a half—the same year I’ll celebrate my five-year college reunion! If/when I do choose to make a career change five years from now, I plan to continue working in a position focused on access to education and student advocacy.
HH: What skills have you learned from your time at NER that have connected to your current career path?
NF: Storytelling happens in multiple capacities: nonfiction and fiction literary submissions, interviews, and personal essays (all of which I worked with during my time at NER). Admissions offices read anywhere from 8,000 to over 10,000 application essays, and the personal essay is my opportunity to hear a student directly insert their voice into the application process. Each essay I read reminds me of that summer reading submissions!
HH: Have you read and/or written anything for fun recently?
NF: I’m incredibly drawn to memoirs and nonfiction! In the past three years, I made a goal to read pieces from the regions where I recruit students. My bookshelf grew to include Jesmyn Ward, Sara M. Broom, Tara Westover, and Diane Guerrero (her memoir In the Country We Love, a personal favorite). The next memoir I’m looking to add is Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart.
The most recent book I read was Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson, my commencement speaker. In fact, many of Wilkerson’s words from her commencement address came from the epilogue of Caste, words that I have carried with me since May 2018 and share with others:
Radical empathy [rather than sympathy] means putting in the work to educate oneself and to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel […] Radical empathy is not about you and what you think you would do in a situation you have never been in and perhaps never will. It is the generosity of spirit that opens your heart to the true experience and pain and perspective of another.
Her analytical writing and storytelling abilities keep me drawn in for hours on end (I read Caste in three days during our busy application reading season). Next, I’m beginning her historical study The Warmth of Other Suns.
HH: What has prepared you the most for life after Middlebury that would be most helpful for undergraduates to keep in mind?
NF: The value of your community! I wouldn’t be where I am without the support and guidance of my Middlebury mentors, especially those who were also the first in their families to pursue higher education and paved the way for those to follow. As a result, I make sure to pay it forward to build up this network and lead with radical empathy to see my community grow and flourish.