In her role as outreach educator and exhibit preparator for the University of Northern Iowa Museum, Jess Cruz helps create public exhibits for the UNI Museum and works with students to prepare them for a career in museum studies.
And as a proud Hispanic and bisexual woman, Cruz also serves as a resource and advocate for students across campus. That's why she joined UNI's Out and Ally Network, a collective of faculty and staff, organized by UNI’s Gender and Sexuality Services office, who are LGBTQ or allies of the community.
"The entire reason I have a job is because we have students. I think that every one of us who works on campus has an ability to be a resource for a student and if we feel we are able to shoulder that emotional work, we should do that," she said. "I have this massive amount of privilege — I pass as straight, I pass as white and I've learned over time that the important thing is the ways I can leverage my privilege to make other [marginalized] people feel comfortable."
A first-generation Mexican-American, Cruz is married to a man. Not only is she a part of the LGBTQ community that doesn’t often receieve attention, she said many who meet her don’t know her ethnic background, either. Cruz said she chooses to use her privilege to advocate for others and is part of inclusion efforts at Rod Library.
"The library is a place that you can come to and find someone in somewhat of a public facing role, who is going to help you find resources that you need," she said. "Any sort of inclusion should be something that's really built into the fabric of your organization. The efforts that UNI is making ... it’s nice to see we’re moving in that direction."
Cruz has always been a creative person. She said she was a "weird little hippie kid" in high school who didn't fit in with any social groups. In community college, she developed a love of photography and she went on to get her bachelor's in studio art from Coker University. After taking some time off to work and develop her own creative projects, she returned to school at Western Illinois University in 2011 for her master's in museum studies and fell in love with the field.
“Jess has a passion for museum work that can be seen in supporting student success as she serves as an excellent mentor in specialized training resulting in her students going on to excel at other museums,” said Nathan Arndt, director and chief curator for the UNI Museum. “She is an active team member on the museum staff and is always encouraging new ideas and concepts to better the museum and make the library think of projects in alternative ways.”
Her creativity and confidence allow her to connect with people from different backgrounds. Since her job at the UNI Museum focuses on community outreach, she’s able to do the type of advocacy she’s passionate about — whether it’s related to art or her identities.
Her childhood experiences also help her connect with people, especially marginalized students. Cruz’s father, a retired maintenance mechanic, is Mexican and her family was the only Hispanic family in Grant Park, Illinois. A first-generation Mexican-American, Cruz struggled to fit in even when she attended a more diverse high school when her family moved to DeKalb, Illinois. But that experience of consistently being an outsider is what’s given her the confidence to stand up for herself — and for students — today.
"If you grow up, knowing that you are not part of the standard, it makes it a little bit more comfortable to like, 'I don't have to be part of the majority, I don't have to play that game.’ There’s never really been much of this struggle or strife of trying to figure out where I fit in,” she said. “Every individual has worth and has value and if someone makes you feel bad you don’t have to be around that. You have the ability to say, ‘I can make a community around me that I love and that matters, and lifts me up instead of asks me to change.’”