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Associate Director of La Casa Latina Kareli Lizarraga, a 2013 College graduate, ended her position to become the assistant director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at Arizona State University. (Photo from La Casa Latina)

2013 College graduate and Associate Director of La Casa Latina Kareli Lizarraga ended her position and left the University on June 30.

Lizarraga will become the assistant director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at Arizona State University. Following her departure, Director of La Casa Latina Krista Cortes is now the only remaining staff member. Maritza Santiago-Torres, former office coordinator of La Casa Latina, retired in 2020.

“La Casa Latina will always have a deeply special place in my heart,” Lizarraga wrote in a statement to the La Casa Latina community on June 25. “As a first-generation, low-income, and undocumented undergraduate student at Penn, La Casa Latina gave me a loving and welcoming space to explore what it meant to be me.”

Lizarraga has longstanding ties with Penn. After earning her undergraduate degree from Penn in 2013, she earned a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Education in 2020. She took on the role of associate director of La Casa Latina in 2017.

Lizarraga said her goal has been to make higher education more accessible to underrepresented communities, and she hopes that her new role will bring her closer to accomplishing that goal.

“It’s very bittersweet because Penn and Philadelphia have been my home since I was a student at Penn,” Lizarraga said. “I’m sad to leave, but I’m also excited to take the learnings that I have gathered over these last four years and expand my impact.”

During her time at La Casa Latina, Lizarraga implemented initiatives to provide support to Latinx students, including a mentorship program called “Familias," which paired primarily first-year students with upperclassmen, graduate students, and alumni.

“It was super helpful getting to know people that had graduated maybe 20 years ago, but also [current graduate] students who were at Penn,” rising Wharton senior and La Casa Latina work-study student Lesly Villanueva said. 

Cortes — who became the director of La Casa Latina in 2020 after former director of La Casa Latina Johnny Irizarry retired in 2019 — said her current priority is to fill the role of associate director, noting that Lizarraga was an “invaluable resource” to La Casa Latina because of her connections to the Latinx community at Penn.

“I think it’ll be interesting to see how the vice provost’s office goes about this, and if they have any plans of hiring a new [associate] director because La Casa Latina has lost all three of their leadership figures within the last two years,” Villanueva said.

Cortes said her goals for La Casa Latina for the upcoming year are to expand what it means to be Latinx to be more inclusive of Afro-Latinx individuals at Penn, make programming more diverse, and increase engagement with the Philadelphia community. 

“I think [Cortes is] going to do a phenomenal job,” Lizarraga said. “I think she is such a beautiful example of the power that our communities hold, and I’m just really excited to see La Casa Latina blossom and expand under her leadership.”