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December grad connecting her culture, passions and skills: Monique Morales Briand

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Monique Morales Briand, right, an international business and management major from Delavan, spent part of summer 2019 in Havana, Cuba, studying culture and history with her best friend from UW-Eau Claire, Mirella Espino.

Life can be pretty hectic for graduating seniors in their final semester of college, global pandemic aside. It is often a time of tunnel vision with a laser-like focus on a capstone project, completing research and all the academic "lasts" on the checklist — a sprint to the finish leaving little time for extras. 

Not for soon-to-be University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire graduate Monique Morales Briand. In October, Morales Briand added a new responsibility to her plate, one completely outside the scope of her academic work, becoming one of two new community health ambassadors working through the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. The positions were created to expand knowledge and awareness of the COVID-19 virus and testing opportunities among local and regional community members of Hmong and Latinx descent. 

Morales Briand was happy to take on this role, another way to use her knowledge of Latinx culture and connections to better the community.  

"I have been reaching out to Latinx families and UWEC students in Eau Claire to offer accurate and timely information about COVID-19 and testing," Morales Briand says. "I think people are understanding more and more that COVID-19 is not a joke and must be taken seriously. I help point them to the many valuable resources, such as the available Spanish versions of all documents and announcements from the health department. These efforts allow for Latinx families to understand what is happening and how to protect themselves and their loved ones." 

For those who know Morales Briand, her decision to commit to this added community work is not surprising because she has spent most of her time as a Blugold pushing herself in the classroom, in collaborative faculty-student undergraduate research, in international study and research, as an Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) intern, and in other campus organizations like the Latin Student Association. After all, she was raised by a strong woman who she says instilled in her a strong work ethic and drive to make the "first-generation graduate" title mean something for her family.

"My family by far is my biggest motivation to dream big and work hard," Morales Briand says. "I want to push my family name out of the cycle that they have been in for far too long; I want the name Morales to be known for being more than hard laborers. I’m excited that I get to be the person to do that and hopefully set the example for others in my family to go to college. It hasn't been easy. I am a first-gen college student, a Latina and an immigrant whose first language isn’t English and who grew up with only one parent. Those are just some of the obstacles that many of us have had to face." 

Morales Briand points out that despite those obstacles, attending college was still an option for her — one from which she has been determined to seize every opportunity to come her way. 

Study abroad helped to connect strengths and interests 

Morales Briand, who has lived most of her life in Delavan, began her Blugold career as an accounting and finance major, but soon realized that her passions lay elsewhere. With the help of her academic advisor, she found the double major that better suited her skills, her passions and would allow her to more directly honor her heritage through a career.

"I chose international business because I want to work with companies that conduct business with countries from around the world, especially Latin America because of my Hispanic heritage," she says. "I paired it with management because I felt that the two complemented one another and I could envision myself working in that role. I found a major that fit me, instead of trying to fit into a major."

With Spanish as her first language and her strong academics, Morales Briand was confident in her base skills to pursue an international career but wanted to broaden her understanding of the geographic and cultural diversity among the Latinx communities across the globe. It was important to Morales Briand to take advantage of opportunities for international travel and study, and two trips offered through UW-Eau Claire paired perfectly with this goal — immersion trips to Nicaragua over Winterim 2018 and Cuba in the summer of 2019.   

Led by Dr. Analisa DeGrave and Dr. Theresa Kemp that year, the "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" immersion is a recurring trip through the economics department and the Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program at UW-Eau Claire, described by course developer Dr. Rose-Marie Avin as follows: 

"This course gives students a vision of the social struggle for women's rights in Nicaragua, but more importantly, the struggle of women to claim their place in the development of their country and take action to promote freedom and sexual diversity," says Avin, a professor of economics. "Students meet women who had and have important roles in Nicaraguan history, the revolution, the economy, social movements and those who have suffered under the patriarchal system and are members of a constant struggle."

"I learned so much in such a short amount of time about Nicaraguan culture, people and history," Morales Briand says. "But, it didn’t stop there; I felt that I grew as a person because of the varied experiences that I had. It made me a more open-minded individual."

A springboard for research 

The trip to Nicaragua opened more than Morales Briand's mind — it opened doors to valuable undergraduate research opportunities. DeGrave immediately connected with Morales Briand, seeing her tremendous talent and ambition as a great potential match for upcoming research projects funded through the UW-Eau Claire Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP).  

"Due to her familiarity with the complex dynamics of gender in Nicaragua, her advanced language proficiency in Spanish and her intercultural competencies, I invited Monique to conduct research with me on two student-faculty research projects through ORSP," DeGrave says. "Monique’s linguistic expertise and interpersonal skills were crucial to communicating with our colleagues in Central America. She is a kind and intelligent person with many talents. I cannot wait to see what she will do."

The projects were both related to topics of interest for Morales Briand, and she is grateful for the experiences she gained from each.  

"With Dr. DeGrave, I conducted research on two separate projects, 'Women and Microloans in Nicaragua: Changes in the Standard of Living' and 'Bringing Nicaraguan Expertise to UWEC: Internationalizing Classrooms with Interdisciplinary Videos.' I was able to apply my experience of studying in Nicaragua to the research I was doing, getting the most out of my different high-impact practices. I gained real-life international experience that will help me in the global market."

Morales Briand credits DeGrave with having the most significant positive impact on her academic experience as a Blugold. The two presented in early October for a virtual "Blugold Dialogues" event discussing an international collaboration between UW-Eau Claire–Barron County and Nicaraguan educators to create a series of interdisciplinary videos for UWEC-BC classrooms. 

"Over the 2 1/2 years that I've collaborated with Dr. DeGrave, I've had such great experiences and met so many amazing people," she says. "Since the trip to Nicaragua and throughout our research, Dr. DeGrave has fostered an environment that allowed for my growth and creativity. She is very knowledgeable and patient and I am grateful for all that she has done for me." 

A place to be herself

In addition to finding the perfect fit for her academically, Morales Briand feels lucky to have found in OMA the perfect space for her personal growth and the sense of grounding on campus that is essential for student success. 

"My first few years at Eau Claire were tough and it took me a while to find a space where I could feel like myself," she explains. "The Office of Multicultural Affairs was my outlet to connect with people who also felt the way I did and had similar past experiences. Through the activities, organizations and spaces that OMA provided I felt motivated and had a clearer path to achieve my goals. I met my best friend, Mirella Espino, through OMA. She and I had many similarities and lots of shared experiences; we motivated one other and I knew that she understood me. To this day we are still really close; I’m grateful to have someone like her in my life and it all started because of OMA." 

Moving forward with pride 

After commencement, Morales Briand looks forward to soon being able to travel to Mexico to see friends and family, then combining the year's lessons from a pandemic with her mother's foundation in perseverance and diligence to build the international career path that suits her best. 

"The biggest lesson that I have learned from the pandemic is we have to be open to change and know how to adapt. Although change can be hard, oftentimes it leads to something better," she says, thinking of her mother's strong example.

"I was raised by only my mom who has always been hardworking, oftentimes working two or three jobs to make ends meet. She inspires me to do my best and to strive toward my goals. The graduation process has also made me reflect on how far my family and I have come. I’m proud of myself and all that I have accomplished at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but this is just the beginning."