UConn social work professor achieves two firsts as a Latina, aims to help immigrant families

UConn School of Social Work professor Cristina Wilson poses for a photo in front of the School of Social Work Building on the UConn Hartford campus on Sept. 1, 2022. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

UConn School of Social Work professor Cristina Wilson poses for a photo in front of the School of Social Work Building on the UConn Hartford campus on Sept. 1, 2022. (Sydney Herdle/UConn Photo)

Sean Flynn/UConn

Cristina Mogro-Wilson remembers that day in 2007 like it was yesterday. She had recently stepped into a new job at the University of Connecticut when she overheard Latina faculty members in the hallway having a conversation in Spanish.

As the daughter of two Bolivian immigrants, Mogro-Wilson heard Spanish all the time in her household, but rarely in academic settings. Up until that moment, she had felt the need to hide her Latin heritage.

“I was floored. For me, it was like the beginning of my journey to better integrating who I am and taking ownership of my identity,” she said. “I think that’s why for me representation matters so very much. Latina professors, we really just need our voices and experiences at the table.”

Fifteen years later, Mogro-Wilson is the first Latina to become a full professor at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work in its 75-year history. In addition, she has become the first person of color to be named editor-in-chief of "Families in Society," the first journal of social work research in the United States, after a few years as an editor.

Mogro-Wilson’s goal as the journal’s leader is to increase diversity among the publication's staff and readers. As the first person of color to lead the journal, which launched in 1920, she does not want it to take 100 years for another consequential change to occur. 

“By bringing in different voices, from different experiences, from different walks of life, different populations from underrepresented groups..all of those pieces are an important way of just widening our conversation and better understanding the issues that are plaguing our society,” she said. “Without that, we don’t even know what questions to ask or how we go about answering them.”

Nina Heller, the dean at the UConn School of Social Work, said Mogro-Wilson’s promotion speaks to her ability to envision the research social work needs and how to bring diverse voices into the field.

“This is just the next step in what is a really very, very impressive career,” she said.

Mogro-Wilson's milestone comes after 16 years at UConn. After getting her PhD at at SUNY Albany in 2007, she was hired at the Uconn Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities as an assistance professor in residence before transitioning to the School of Social Work where she became an associate professor in 2015.  

She decided to pursue social work while studying psychology at Fairfield University, where she worked with preschool-aged Latino children and their families at the Head Start program in Bridgeport.

There, she saw how language and cultural barriers could impact a child’s access to quality education. At the program, kids were placed in preschool settings where they didn’t speak the language. Those with significant disabilities were not receiving the proper diagnosis or care. English-speaking teachers and providers had a hard time communicating with the kids or parents.

“I wanted to make it easier for children and families [who] are experiencing a significant amount of issues in their lives and their family lives, but also in the systems,” she said. “I wanted to intervene, not only kind of at the individual level, but also at the family,” she said.

Her research focuses on identifying systemic issues and improving the lives of Latinx families. She is also a faculty member in UConn's Puerto Rican and Latin@ Studies Project, which aims to advance the well-being of Latinx communities through education.

She has studied Latino fathers and ways they can support their kids during times of stress and uncertainty. Her work focuses on preserving Latin culture, values and strengths to benefit families, as it benefited hers. 

“Growing up in a bilingual home with two immigrant parents, I saw the importance of education and the family as being kind of central to who we are as a Latino community,” she said.

Her father, who conducted research for General Electric, and her mother, a professor, would encourage her to attend school during summer visits to Bolivia, where it was winter time and her cousins were still in school. 

“I actually went to school then year-round," she said.

Mogro-Wilson said those strengths can easily be stripped away as Latinx families acculturate into the United States. One obstacle she's researched is the stigma around having an accent and speaking English as a second language.

Alberto Cifuentes, a doctoral candidate and instructor at UConn’s School of Social Work, worked as Mogro-Wilson's research assistant for two years. He said studying Latino fathers with Mogro-Wilson was illuminating and allowed him to reflect back to his own upbringing, when his father, a Colombian immigrant, only allowed him to speak English out of fear his son would face the same discrimination he did.

“She cares so much about Latino families and that’s the hallmark of her research,” he said. “She's able to draw from her own upbringing, and from her own experience. And I think that's really important. Her passion for this work, it’s really contagious.”

Cifuentes described Mogro-Wilson as empathetic and patient. She taught him how to review scholarly journals and would give him advice about the job market and academia.

“She’s just helped me become a better scholar and a better researcher, and I really do appreciate her continued guidance throughout my early career,” he said.

Mogro-Wilson said witnessing emerging scholars help communities is her favorite part about being a mentor. One of her main goals as a professor is to help recruit and retain students from underrepresented populations.

“It’s not really about this individual success, it’s about creating these pathways for doctoral, graduate and undergraduate students to come up through the ranks,” she said. “It’s about making it easier for them to do something similar and reach out to provide services to communities that need it the most.”

When she first began her tenure track, she had very few role models with a similar background: a young Latina mother in academia. Now she can be that role model.

“I think just seeding somebody like yourself makes it seem possible and gives you an opportunity that you think may have never have been possible before.”