February 1 2018
Silvio Vazquez’s answer is almost immediate, coming before I finished asking the question. “If I could be any character in the “Chronicles of Narnia” I’d be Reepicheep.”
In his office overlooking McCully Field, Vazquez looks right at home. And with the way he speaks about Wheaton’s mission, the casual observer or prospective student likely wouldn’t guess that he’s even newer to Wheaton than the Welcome Center in which his office is located.
“He is seemingly small and insignificant, but he’s noble and believes in a higher call,” Vazquez explained about his character of choice. “I love Reepicheep.”
Vazquez, who did an independent study project on C.S. Lewis as an undergraduate at Gordon College, started work as Chief Enrollment Management Officer (CEMO) at the beginning of the semester. He is the first person to hold the newly-created position, and when he speaks about his job, he makes a close connection between two unlikely things: enrollment management and stories.
“From a missional perspective, what [CEMO] means is that we want to create the programs and the messaging of the institution in an appealing way to attract the best-fit students for Wheaton so that Wheaton can fulfill its mission,” Vazquez said. “[It’s saying,] ‘Let’s tell the story.’”
Vazquez’s own story — the one which led to his fascination with “the story of Christian higher education” — began in central New Jersey. After coming to the United States from Buenos Aires, Argentina when he was three years old, Vazquez grew up in a “hard-working” immigrant family.
“Many immigrant families … they come to this country and they work hard … and that’s certainly what my parents did,” Vazquez said. “I cleaned doctor’s offices every day, Monday through Friday, five days a week, five to 10, either after soccer practice or after theater rehearsal.”
In addition to soccer, theater, and work, Vazquez also participated in Young Life. As a sophomore in high school, his Young Life leader introduced him to the gospel.
“I fell in love with what he did … and decided early on that that’s what I wanted to do,” Vazquez said of his Young Life leader. “Even before I fully understood what it meant to be a Christian, I went up to him and said ‘I want to do what you do.’ And he looked at me as if to say, ‘You have no idea yet.’ I remember that vividly.”
Observing that Vazquez’s faith “wouldn’t have survived” at a larger state school, Vazquez’s Young Life leader encouraged him to consider attending a Christian college — not “to shelter me, but to help nurture me along.” He ended up enrolling at Gordon College in Boston.
“I consider myself getting into college by the skin of my teeth,” Vazquez said. “I was barely prepared for it.”
Halfway through his freshman year, Vazquez left Gordon.
“I needed to try a different approach,”’ Vazquez said. “I decided to go back home to Princeton and to think long and hard about what kind of student I wanted to be, why I wanted to go to a Christian college.”
In the year which followed, Vazquez worked cleaning offices and at a deli while completing a handful of courses at community college. Then a letter arrived from one of his favorite Gordon professors.
“[He] sent me a clipping of the men’s soccer team going to the nationals,” said Vazquez, who had played on the soccer team at Gordon. “His note said ‘Silvio, I was thinking about you, I hope you’re well. Thought you’d want to see this. We miss you.’”
For Vazquez, the next move was clear.
“I remember standing in the kitchen,” he said. “It was December of 1983, and I said to my mom, ‘I’m going back.’”
Vazquez’s second time around at Gordon was far better. It was during the remainder of his undergraduate career that he developed a “love for learning” which led him to want to give back to the institution.
“I remember walking across campus and saying, ‘Someday I want to impact this institution in some way,’” Vazquez recalled. “Sort of like that high school kid who said ‘I want to do what you do’ without fully understanding what that meant.”
After graduation, Vazquez become a Young Life director in Fairfield County, Connecticut. But the passions he had discovered during college — one for high school students and another for “marketplace principles” and marketing — eventually drew him back to Gordon.
“I had been offered a job with a mutual fund company, as well as a job with a social work agency to direct a youth at risk residency program, and … I had the freedom to say, ‘Gordon might be a good place for me to do both,’” Vazquez said.
That is where he became a storyteller.
“I started thinking about what it meant to tell the story of Christian higher education, to market Christian higher ed, develop stories, reach out to communities [and] work with the constituencies of the institution,” Vazquez said.
His various roles at Gordon over two decades — from admissions counselor to Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing — provided Vazquez with the opportunity to continue working with high school students and their families, as well as to promote something he “really believed in.” In 2009 he left Gordon to work at a higher education consulting firm, before becoming the Dean of Admissions at Westmont College in 2011.
In his nearly thirty years in the field, Vazquez has had a lot of time to observe the narrative of higher education.
“Our higher ed culture, for the prospective user, is one that … instills fear,” Vazquez said. “I’ve seen this overseas as well, [the idea] that ‘I’ve got to send my son or daughter to the best of the best,’ as if that’s their golden ticket. The reality is is that’s just buying into the fear out there.”
As CEMO, Vazquez wants to tell a different story about higher education and specifically Christian higher education.
“There’s nothing wrong with going to that top-tier school … but if you find your meaning there, if you think that’s your golden ticket, then you’re really going after the wrong prize,” Vazquez said. “Students … have the opportunity to go to a Christian college and realize that [they] can go for something greater than getting into the ‘right school.’”
So what is the “story of Christian higher ed” that Vazquez wants to tell prospective students and their families?
“I just started reading a book by Walter Isaacson — [it’s about] Leonardo DaVinci, who I think is a great model for the renaissance man who loves to learn,” Vazquez said. “I think that the story of Christian higher ed is to be able to go to the source of that creativity, and that is God our creator who is preeminent over all things.”
Vazquez likened Christian higher education to an electric car; without plugging into the source, any attempt to drive is futile.
“Tesla thinks he can do it and he’s created some incredible cars, but for me the story is, ‘How do we develop a sense of calling and purpose plugged into the source of where life is sourced to begin with?’” Vazquez said.
Vazquez identified two obstacles to telling this story: the “fear” surrounding the cost of private colleges, and “how people define success.” A Christian education, he believes, provides an alternative story for both of these.
“I talk about pursuing significance rather than success,” Vazquez said. “The story of Christian Higher ed is being able to develop thinking men and women who … understand that whatever they are called to do, they have an opportunity to advance God’s kingdom.… Again, that’s looking at the source — why we do what we do.”
Vazquez’s own story — the one that led him to his new office overlooking College Ave and McCully Field on a 20-degree day in Wheaton, Illinois — is wrapped up, too, in this story of source and significance.
“Did I understand enrollment management when I was walking as a student across campus?” Vazquez said. “No, but I think God sometimes listens to [your] desires, and you also look at what you enjoy doing and what you believe in, and if it’s aligned with what God wants, then I think you have a recipe for—” He stops mid-word, and before he says “success,” he restarts. “For significance.”