For Patricia Torres Nájera, connection to MATC runs deep

College welcomes new executive director of community education, Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) initiatives and strategic engagement

Mark Feldmann,

September 13, 2022

Welcome session

MILWAUKEE – For Patricia Torres Nájera, Ph.D., and her family, Milwaukee Area Technical College made all the difference.

Just before starting her first year at Milwaukee Public Schools’ Pulaski High School in 1982, Dr. Torres Nájera’s father lost his job at GE Healthcare. He enrolled in MATC’s certified appliance technician program and learned the skills that kept his family fed, clothed and dry.

“He had a family-supporting job thanks to MATC,” said Dr. Torres Nájera. “He was able to raise a family because of MATC. MATC has been a critical component in my life.”

Now Dr. Torres Nájera hopes to become a critical part of MATC’s future. On September 12, she started as MATC’s executive director of community education, Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) initiatives and strategic engagement. 

See photos from the meet and greet

She met MATC administrators, faculty members, staff and community residents on September 14 at MATC’s Education Center at Walker’s Square, 816 West National Avenue, Milwaukee. Her parents, Carlos and Maria, were also present.

Dr. Torres Nájera comes to MATC after serving as the director of the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She holds a doctorate in urban studies, a master’s in urban studies/affairs and a bachelor’s degree in economics, all from UWM.

“UWM has been a part of my life for 36 years, and it was a great, wonderful experience,” Dr. Torres Nájera said. “But over the years I have learned how important technical colleges are for meeting people where they are at, and providing an affordable education without amassing massive student debt. 

“I feel very good about what I accomplished at UWM, but I feel this opportunity at MATC is a perfect transition for me,” she added.

See TV coverage from the meet and greet

In her new role at MATC, Dr. Torres Nájera will ensure HSI standards for excellence districtwide, execute strategic initiatives, and forge strong bonds with community-based organizations, school districts and other partners.

MATC in 2018 announced it would seek to attain the federal HSI designation. One of the requirements is that at least 25% of the college’s enrollment be Hispanic/Latino/a students. 

At UWM, Dr. Torres Nájera participated in the HSI Network of Wisconsin, a group of colleges seeking HSI designation. Through collaborative work with people at the college and in the community, she will evaluate where MATC stands in the HSI journey, help develop a strategic plan and find the best resources to realize the goal.

“I also hope to be a role model for our students,” said Dr. Torres Nájera, whose parents immigrated to the United States from Bogotá, Colombia. “I want students to know about my path, to know about my journey. MATC is a place where you can start. You can get a certificate and get a great job, or start here and move on to a four-year college and graduate school.”

She also plans to assess the success of programs conducted with MATC’s community partners, and help spread the word about the courses and resources available at MATC’s Education Center at Walker’s Square.

“I can’t say enough what MATC does for this community,” she said. 

Since moving to Milwaukee 40 years ago, Dr. Torres Nájera has been helping Milwaukee communities and neighborhoods for 35 years as an educator, a community organizer, a civic volunteer, a labor advocate and a social justice defender. 

Dr. Torres Nájera’s empathic feeling for the community was instilled at a young age. Her family often traveled back to Colombia to visit relatives. On one trip, Dr. Torres Nájera witnessed the poverty and privation that plagued her parents’ native country. At the time, more than one-third of the Colombian people lived below the poverty line, with many having little or no access to basic services such as electricity or running water. 

The South American nation has vastly progressed since then, becoming a solid middle-income country and a global leader. But its past plight powerfully affected Dr. Torres Nájera, then a senior at Pulaski and fiercely proud of her Colombian heritage.

“Seeing that made me want to know more about the Latino population of Milwaukee,” Dr. Torres Nájera said. “I came back from that trip with a drive to help them as much as I could.”

In college she worked at Esperanza Unida Inc., a community organization on Milwaukee’s south side, as an interpreter for workers injured on the job. “These dialogues showed me that there were gaps in how they were served,” she said. “I began to wonder who was fighting for their rights.”

Esperanza Unida’s long-time director Richard Oulahan convinced Dr. Torres Nájera to become even more involved. So she spent 12 weeks in Oakland, California, learning the tenets of community organizing at the Center for Third World Organizing. 

She put what she learned into action in Colorado, helping to improve the working conditions, wages and healthcare benefits for unionized janitorial workers in downtown Denver.

She returned to Milwaukee and worked as a community organizer for the Gamaliel Network, a faith-based justice organization that assists community leaders on social, economic, political and environmental concerns. 

In December 1999, she was appointed to the City of Milwaukee Plan Commission, a post she held for 20 years, and served as chairperson for 14 years. Dr. Torres Nájera said she relished hearing comments from citizens about proposed developments.

At every stop in her career, Dr. Torres Nájera has honed her skills as a listener and consensus builder. “Over the years I have learned how to find common ground, been able to look at both sides, understand the bigger picture and facilitate conversations,” she said. “My goal is to build relationships, build partnerships, be a role model, help people achieve their goals and determine how MATC best fits into that picture.”

Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 25,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 170 academic programs; and transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.