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Students, alumni, faculty and staff were joined by community members to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month Oct. 3 as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis delivered a special lecture in the Kenan Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

The event, sponsored by the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative, the Alumni Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity and the Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, included opening remarks by Chancellor Carol L. Folt.

“The future of North Carolina, as we all know, is to have a younger and more diverse population,” said Folt, adding that learning about the university’s diverse cultural heritage is one of the most interesting parts of her job.

Dr. Michael Ortiz, the president of Cal Poly Pomona and an alumnus of UNC-Chapel Hill’s doctoral degree program in education, introduced Solis, who grew up as a child of immigrants in California. Solis said that her parents emphasized the importance of earning an education from an early age.

“What really stands out to me is the fact that my parents taught me so much about work ethic,” she said.

Most of Solis’ peers in school were tracked into programs that would lead them to manual labor or military careers. Her high school guidance counselor told her that she should work toward becoming a secretary because she wasn’t “college material.”

But a former history teacher told her about a program for first-generation college students at Cal Poly Pomona, where she earned her undergraduate degree.

After completing an internship at the White House as a graduate student at the University of Southern California, Solis worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to California and eventually being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her exposure to national and international issues showed her that the Latina/o community was being underrepresented in the discussion.

“My ideas come from my history,” she said, noting that she focuses on labor, education, healthcare and the environment.

Her commitment to those issues during her time in Congress led President Barack Obama to nominate Solis to become the U.S. Secretary of Labor, making her the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Cabinet – a position, she said, that gave her an opportunity to make a lasting impact and help diverse people.

“The greatest part of being involved in government and in public policy is being a public servant,” said Solis, who served in that position from February 2009 to January 2013.

As she prepares to transition to a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in December, Solis said that she continues to learn, grow and be inspired by others. She closed her remarks with a reminder about the importance of voting as a way to have a voice and see change in communities.

“Our work is not done,” she said, “and we have a lot more to do.”

By Olivia Hart, Office of Communications and Public Affairs

Published Oct. 3, 2014