“I think of myself as a storyteller. I am here to help the university and the president tell their story.”
That is how Lorena Armstrong-Duarte, communications and constituent relations manager for the Office of the President, defines her role at St. Thomas.
Armstrong-Duarte assumed her role at the University of St. Thomas one year ago, after over five years as a speech writer and communications manager at the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. Moving from a land-grant institution to St. Thomas, a private Catholic university, was quite a shift – one that she had not planned on, but immediately felt would be a great fit.
"When I saw this job open up, I said, ‘That’s my next job.’”
Armstrong-Duarte has worked for several mission-centered organizations in her life, including Twin Cities Public Television and Minneapolis Public Schools.
“St. Thomas isn’t just talking the talk, it’s walking the walk,” she said. “It’s investing money, space, resources, faculty, time and philanthropy efforts into giving underserved communities and students more opportunity and equity.”
Making a home in Minnesota
Diversity is important to Armstrong-Duarte. She was born in El Salvador and came to Minnesota at the age of five. Although she grew up in St. Paul, her family traveled frequently between the two countries. A fluent Spanish speaker, she changed schools 12 times before graduating high school.
Through it all her parents set a strong example regarding the importance of education. She remembers her mother, Esperanza Quesada, an accountant in El Salvador, studying at night to be able to renew her career in the U.S., eventually becoming an accountant for Ramsey County.
“My mom’s family has education in their blood. My grandmother was a principal in El Salvador and many of my aunts were teachers. They always stressed the importance of education.”
And it was her father, Mario Duarte, who inspired her career path.
“He was tired of news where the only coverage of Latinos was negative.
“It was all drugs, immigration, gangs,” Armstrong-Duarte said. “He knew that the Latino community in Minnesota was doing wonderful things; that there was so much contribution by our community and he wanted others to know their stories. So, he started La Prensa de Minnesota.”
The bilingual newspaper became a pioneer in a time when media was either all-English or all-Spanish.
“My dad wanted it to be a bridge. Not just between the Latino and other communities, but between Latinos themselves, who come from over 20 different countries, and many of whom in Minnesota [at that time] didn’t speak Spanish.”
Duarte published La Prensa for over 15 years and became a well-known fixture in Minnesota’s Latino community. He was recognized in 2013 by St. Thomas’ ThreeSixty Journalism, a high school program run by St. Thomas, for his journalism and the opportunities he gave to young Latino and BIPOC journalists.
Armstrong-Duarte started working at La Prensa during high school and continued in the summers on her breaks from Harvard University.
“I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of going to Harvard their whole life,” she said.
A combination of inspiring high school teachers, her participation in high school speech and debate, and a love for the city of Boston made her apply. But it was not an easy experience.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “My parents are very smart people, but they didn’t go to college in the States, they don’t know this system. And Harvard is a very intentionally intimidating place. Most of my professors acted like teaching undergraduates was a burden. And at one point, I was told that if I wanted to study Latino literature I should transfer to UCLA.”
She graduated with a bachelor's degree in romance languages and literature and returned to Minnesota. She thought about law school, went backpacking around Europe, and began a successful creative trajectory: publishing and performing her poetry, winning grants and fellowships, and serving on the board of The Loft, one of the nation’s largest and most respected literary organizations.
“It’s almost inevitable that I would end up in communication and in higher ed,” she said. “I have experienced the power of higher education personally. Education truly is a passport for equity, economic and social change. But I’ve also experienced the gatekeeping, the dark side of higher education. I want to make sure that the next generation of first-gen students don’t have it as hard as I did.”
At St. Thomas, she hopes to elevate the stories that will make a difference, to its students, alumni, donors and leadership.
“I want people to see the amazing things our students are achieving, on and off campus. How their education affects them, which affects their communities, which affects the world,” she said. “I can’t think of a better story to tell.”