Academic Advisor Karla Vilchez-Neal, Ed. D. ’17, Joins the NIUAA Board

By Eva Richards

karla-vilchez-neal-photoKarla Vilchez-Neal, Ed.D. '17, works as an academic advisor for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and she now serves as a member of the NIUAA Board of Directors.

As an academic advisor for NIU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dr. Karla Vilchez-Neal sees first-hand the challenges students face when completing their degrees. Inspired by their wherewithal, she strives to help them make the most of their time on campus.

“As the years go by, students come back to share their accomplishments, their talents and resources, and to show off their families,” Vilchez-Neal said. “When I see these students after the years, I feel so proud of them because I am aware of how much they have overcome and developed over time.”

As she joins the NIU Alumni Association Board this summer, Vilchez-Neal hopes to share her students’ experiences with her fellow board members, working to improve the alumni association and the University however she can.

“I know these are not easy times and it is important to be committed to the sustainability of our institution,” she said. “I hope to inspire other Huskies to commit their talents and support to NIU and to serve as a bridge between current students’ voices and the board.”

Vilchez-Neal came to her role as academic advisor after several years of her own student experiences. Growing up in San José, Costa Rica, she attended the only arts conservatory in the country from the age of eight until graduation. 

“I grew up practicing and surrounded by classical music, ballet and dance, visual arts, and theatre,” she said. “I developed a passion for music and graduated high school with a concentration in French horn performance. Music opened doors for me to travel internationally and, through those opportunities, I received a talent grant to travel to the United States and study at Western Illinois University (WIU).”

After graduating from WIU’s ESL program, Vilchez-Neal completed a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in music performance, followed by a master’s in music performance from the University of Louisville, where she also worked as a graduate teaching assistant. 

She then changed her career direction, pursuing a doctoral degree in adult and higher education after discovering a passion for working with students as a residence hall community advisor at WIU. NIU was the ideal choice, as it was the closest university to Vilchez-Neal’s partner’s family.

“While pursuing my doctorate at NIU, one of my favorite experiences was doing an internship in 2008 with the NIU Latino Resource Center,” Vilchez-Neal said, noting she became the first person in her family to complete a doctoral degree. “Through the internship, I had the opportunity to coordinate “De Mujer a Mujer,” the Latina assistance program that aims to promote Latina students’ personal and academic development. This experience reassured my decision to switch from music to higher education, which was a difficult decision.”

Another fulfilling experience was being part of the team that built an ESL program at West Virginia State University, a Historically Black College in Institute, West Virginia. This was a very rewarding experience as she was able to help shape the program and welcome the first groups of students from Mexico, Brazil, Iran, India, Gambia, and Bangladesh to the campus.

Vilchez-Neal says that NIU has been her “favorite laboratory” and has greatly influenced her career trajectory. She is grateful for being a part of a seasoned team of professionals in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who truly care about students, and she taps into the many opportunities NIU offers. 

“There are several resources and academic centers dedicated to the development and study of specific populations, and I have taken advantage of trainings and colloquia offered by these departments and offices, which have helped inform my practice as an academic advisor,” she said. “In addition, through my graduate assistantships, internships and full-time work experiences at NIU, I have had the opportunity to sharpen my knowledge about college-student leadership development, programming boards, student organization services, teaching multicultural education and first-year experience, student academic success and more.”

All of this makes her a well-rounded advisor who can guide her Huskies. Still, she insists she learns more from her students than they will ever know.

“My best teachers have been my students who, throughout the years, have transformed my way of seeing the world,” she said. “Having grown up in Costa Rica, I knew very little about Chicago’s history, race relations, politics, and life in general prior to coming to NIU. What I have learned about Chicago has inspired me to learn further about Costa Rica’s history and race relations.”

Vilchez-Neal notes that its Huskies’ diversity and openness that makes us great.

“Huskies come from different backgrounds; we have different interests, talents and lived experiences. It is impossible not to transform as an individual because of our interactions with one another whether inside or outside the classroom,” she said. “That transformation makes us better prepared to thrive in today's society. I have spent years at a handful of higher education institutions, and I have chosen to make NIU my place of work and my community because I believe in what it has to offer.”