Growing up in Boston Public Schools, Felix Arroyo got to know the University of Massachusetts Boston through the Talented and Gifted (TAG) Latino Program, a program for young English language learners.
“In middle school I was running around those hallways at UMass Boston,” he says. “I’m looking forward to being a partner with UMass in my role now, while I have it, to make sure that the school is successful.”
Last year Mayor Marty Walsh added Arroyo to his cabinet as the Chief of Health and Human Services for the City of Boston.
“I have the real blessing of waking up every day and thinking about how do we make Boston more accessible, how do we create more opportunities for the people in our city, and how do we make sure that no one is left behind,” he says. “I’m really in awe that I have this opportunity. I’m grateful for it, and a whole lot of things that have happened in my life, including my time at UMass Boston, that prepared me for this.”
He oversees several of the largest homeless shelters in Boston, and finding housing for people that need it is one of the most gratifying parts of his job.
“Everyone in the city matters,” he says. “We treat someone who’s homeless with the respect and dignity that they deserve, and work towards ending that part of their lives so that they can be stably housed and move forward with their life, and when we’re able to pull that off, good things happen.”
Arroyo also works with youth and families at the 35 community centers across the city, helping ten thousand kids get jobs in the city over the summer through various private partners. He also co-chairs My Brother’s Keeper, which is a program designed to remove obstacles in the lives of minorities in the city of Boston.
“No one’s going to really give us anything that we want, and we have to believe in ourselves to make it happen. So the one piece of advice I would give current students is to soak it all in, learn everything you can, know that you’re never going to know everything, and to really follow your passion, because when you find that match it feels as if you don’t even have to work because you enjoy it.”
Arroyo started working on his degree at UMass Boston in the late 90s, taking night classes while working to support his family.
“UMass Boston felt comfortable for me because of the economic realities of my family. When it was time for me to go to college, I knew I wanted to go to a school that I could afford, where I believed that I could still get a good education, and UMass Boston was perfect for me in that it was affordable compared to other schools. I thought the level of education was good, I felt very familiar with the campus, and I felt that I wasn’t the only student there who was working and going to school at the same time, and so I felt comfortable there.”
He held three jobs at the time: as a busser at a restaurant on Newbury Street, a security guard at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and an administrator at the Donahue Institute, which is a part of the UMass system.
“My higher education wasn’t a straight line,” he says. “I had to pay for school out of my own pocket, so my path to higher education was just different than I think other people’s, not that it was better or worse, but it took me a little longer.”
Because of the pressures of work and supporting his family, Arroyo left UMass Boston for awhile. Then he tested into a masters program at New Hampshire University, where he studied economic development. Equipped with a degree, Arroyo got elected to the Boston City Council where he served for four years. He left office shortly after the 2013 Boston mayoral election.
“It felt sort of strange to me not to have the bachelors, so that was one of the things I wanted to fix after I had run for mayor and was seeing what I was going to do next. I knew that I had wanted to just get that done so I could say I did it, and to put that part of my life behind me.”
After the whirlwind mayoral race, in which he came in 5th in a field of 12 candidates, Arroyo wanted to hit the books again.
“I decided I wanted to go back and sort of finish it up, and I’m pretty proud that I did.”
While completing the final few classes he needed to graduate, Arroyo worked closely with his teachers and didn’t have time for student activities.
“They knew that life was happening, that I was an adult and there were other things going on with me, but still didn’t give up on me, and therefore made it easier for me not to give up on finishing.”
Reflecting on his first stint as a student ten years ago, he fondly remembers organizing events through Casa Latina.
“It was one of my first leadership opportunities in my life, and certainly it was a moment where I felt that responsibility of coming through for others and trying to develop programming that makes sense, and working on issues around Latinos in higher education, making sure that Latinos had access, and then once they were there, were able to finish with school. I think that helped prepare me for what I ended up doing later in life.”
He put together panels on race-based school assignment practices in Boston and gathered the founders to the Gaston Institute to talk about the challenges facing Latinos in America.
“I really enjoyed being active in Casa Latina and using that as a space where I would learn with others.”
He took a lot of political science classes during his first few years, and had the opportunity to study with the current provost, Winston Langley. He remembers most of his classes, and UMass Boston is where he started developing a political network.
“I remember a lot of the students. Some of them I still bump into, some working in nonprofits across the city, others were very helpful to me in my political career, running for city council, running for mayor, and so even many of the professors there are still people who are valuable to me and important in my life.”
Because of his unorthodox path through higher education, Arroyo says UMass Boston taught him resiliency and the value of sticking to a goal no matter how long it takes.
“The culture and the spirit of the university makes it very comfortable for people of different ages to be in the same classroom, and to learn from each other, and so that’s the experience that I had. In fact, when I was in my early 20s, I didn’t feel as if I was the young one in a room, and then later on when I was older, I didn’t feel as though I was the old one in the room. It just felt very natural to be in that classroom, and I think that speaks a lot to the culture of that school.”
In the more than ten years since Arroyo started his degree, the campus had transformed with a vibrant spirit of community engagement.
“I have great respect for the leadership that’s there now through Chancellor Motley and what he’s able to bring to the school, and really to help elevate the school, to really be the type of school we all know it could be.”