Born into Community Leadership

Jose-Luis Izursa Leading the Latinx Employee Association at UMD

March 26, 2024 Kimbra Cutlip

Jose-Luis Izursa remembers the stickers his grandfather used to give him as a child. They bore the emblem of the local Rotary Club where his grandfather was president, and he covered his arms with them, carefully peeling away their paper backings. He also remembers watching the men who gathered in his father’s restaurant in Sucre, Bolivia, to discuss projects for supporting the town and local businesses.

That kind of community service, built by gathering over coffee and food with neighbors is baked into Izursa’s personality. It’s what led him to join the Rotary Club when he moved to College Park, and it’s what propelled him to the role as president of the club, which he held for the Rotary year 2020/2021.

That’s why it’s not too surprising that shortly after walking into a gathering of UMD’s Latin staff and faculty members, Izursa found himself leading the charge to establish a formal organization. The Latinx Employee Association at UMD (LEA) launched in fall 2023 with Isurza as the chair of their board.

Before LEA, there was Cafecito con Mi Gente or “Coffee with My People,” a less formalized group run by the director of the Office of Community Engagement, Gloria Aparicio Blackwell. Members had been gathering to share their cultures and provide each other support for nearly a decade when Jose-Luis joined them a few years ago. Although naturally soft spoken, he is not one to sit back when he has something to add, and after observing quietly, he saw a lot of opportunity for growth.

“I was just in the backseat and watching them for a couple of meetings,” Izursa remembers. “Then I started asking questions and making some suggestions. And when I learned they didn’t have any bylaws, I volunteered to be in charge of putting  them together based on other similar organizations.”

He helped set up a three-person task force to establish bylaws and a board of directors, who seated him as their chair. LEA officially launched last year with support from the University President Daryll Pines and Provost Jennifer King Rice.

“Cafecito con Mi Gente provided an invaluable opportunity for self-identified Latinex faculty and staff to meet individuals from their own country, similar cultural backgrounds, nurturing intentional friendships along the way,” Aparicio Blackwell said. “I met several Venezuelans, my home country. Now, led by Jose-Luis Izursa and other dedicated members, they are transitioning these informal gatherings into a more structured and sustainable organization, which excites me tremendously, as it signifies a move towards garnering recognition and respect from institutional leadership.” 

Broadly, the group’s goals will be to increase opportunities for the Latin American community here on campus and elevate the visibility of their contribution to the UMD community.

“We want to give a voice to the Latinx community, and make sure we have a seat at the table,” Izursa said. “We share culture and language, but we are also very diverse, with different backgrounds and careers paths, so right now, we are still learning about the opportunities for LEA to support our community.”

Specific activities of LEA may focus on helping advance recruitment and retention of Latinx employees, and increasing opportunities for current staff and faculty to advance career skills, broaden their professional networks and increase upward mobility, especially among service and facilities professionals.

Izursa’s civic-mindedness may have been absorbed through his upbringing, but his leadership at UMD is built upon significant prior career experiences. Before moving to the United States, Izursa built the Research Center for the Preservation of the Amazon as its first executive director, where he reported to the President of the University Amazonica of Pando in Bolivia and engaged with international partners.

He was working in conservation when he first came to UMD as a Fulbright scholar to pursue his second master’s degree, this one in Sustainable Development and Conservation Biology. He stayed on to earn his PhD in Environmental Science, but throughout his studies, he continued advancing his career, accumulating titles such as director of science and research for the Fundación Natura Bolivia, coordinator for Conservation International and consultant for the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C. 

In 2014, he joined the faculty as a Research Associate, where he has since established his own lab and built the first aquaponics research and teaching facility at the university.

At the end of this semester, Izursa will hand over the reins at LEA to the next chair