By Trevor Williamson/El Inde
It was a typical warm, spring day in Tucson, with kids playing eighth grade baseball at Flowing Wells Junior High School. For the time being, Marc Acuña would be known as a close friend of head coach Alberto Urquidez, and a recent graduate of Flowing Wells High School.
Certain that he was going to be a famous broadcaster for ESPN after graduating from the University of Arizona, Acuña thought that this baseball season would just be a stepping stone toward that career, and would provide him with some more time with his close friend and mentor before the start of his sophomore year. But after just three days with those kids and Urquidez, Acuña knew that he’d found his passion: connecting with students and serving as a guiding presence for them, just as Urquidez had done for him. Two decades later, Acuña is still helping to mentor and guide younger generations, but that field has turned into a university campus and that baseball team has turned into a university community with over 46,000 current students and hundreds of thousands of alumni.
“I went for two days, and on my third day, I went back to my advisor and changed my major to education, because I met with those students, those athletes, and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I have to do!’,” says Acuña.
Since that day, Acuña’s knack for connecting with students and his genuine desire to improve their lives has been the driving force behind his journey from assistant baseball coach to Assistant Director of National Recruitment and High Ability and Scholar Recruitment, a title so long that he himself chuckles about it.
Today, his current position is Senior Director of Student and Alumni Engagement at the University of Arizona Alumni Association. He’s been able to directly impact students and alumni in his 10 years at the Alumni Association, educating students and alumni on available scholarships and scholarship funds, facilitating interaction between current students and alumni at mixers, reunions and other events, and even bringing students into his office to go over details about upcoming events or just talk to them about what’s going on in their lives.
Another way Acuña has been able to develop students and alumni has been through working directly with the university’s six multicultural clubs (American Indian Alumni Club, Asian American Faculty, Staff & Alumni Club, UA Black Alumni Club, UA Black Alumni Club – Phoenix, UA Hispanic Alumni Club, and Greater Phoenix UA Hispanic Alumni Club), the Bobcats Senior Honorary, career development programs, and more.
“Students follow me everywhere, it seems,” he jokes.
He looks back and laughs thinking about his first day on the job as the Assistant Director of National Recruitment and Hireability and Scholar Recruitment, as his answer to the question of where he wanted to be in five years turned out to be quite prophetic. Acuña told his boss he wanted to be at the Alumni Association because he loved connecting with people, he loved Homecoming and he wanted to be involved with all those things.
“Bam!,” he says, with a self-assured smile. “It took about two years.” Acuña’s office, which is filled with Arizona foam fingers, stickers and pennants, gives off a vibe of ‘controlled chaos’ and a deep passion for the University of Arizona. Just as he has been working non-stop this fall to figure out how to host Homecoming 2020 safely and effectively, given the restrictions for in-person events on campus, Acuña has thrived in the controlled chaos that has been the COVID-19 pandemic, approaching each and every obstacle with an attitude that he has become famous for around the Alumni Association: ‘FIO’ or ‘Figure it out.’
In her first year as Acuña’s associate at the Alumni Association, Lacey Nymeyer-John, the Director of Alumni Career and Professional Development, has seen first-hand what his dedication to the ‘FIO’ mentality has meant, especially when it comes to Homecoming. She says his commitment to ‘FIO’ has paid off and will continue to pay off during this year’s festivities.
“He is the master of ‘FIO,’ so whatever the challenge was with, you know, COVID and how we were going to tackle Homecoming, he was going to ‘FIO’ and figure it out,” says Nymeyer-John.
As a result of this attitude, the Alumni Association has been able to overcome the challenges of distanced engagement by arranging virtual Homecoming festivities for this year, including a virtual lighting of “A” Mountain, virtual tours, webinars and panel discussions, virtual cooking lessons from the University of Arizona’s Chef Michael Omo, and more.
Another aspect of this year’s Homecoming festivities that separates it from past events is the University of Arizona Alumni Association’s “Giving Day,” a new initiative that is meant to encourage alumni to donate in support of new student success initiatives and scholarships.
“So we’ve got an awesome opportunity to honor our traditions, celebrate everything that kind of binds us together as Wildcats, but then also support students, and I think that’s one of the most important things alums and donors love to do,” says Acuña.
Dr. Kasey Urquidez, the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, who, along with her husband, Alberto, was one of Marc’s mentors throughout high school, knows that if anybody can make Homecoming happen this year, it’s Acuña. Urquidez says Acuña would rather be completely exhausted and help people non-stop than take even one day off.
“He doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat,” says Urquidez. “He just focuses on Homecoming and focuses on supporting the Bobcats who are running it and just being everything to everyone . . . Which he’ll still be doing online. But, you know, it’s just a very different experience when you can’t touch and feel it as a part of the whole event. So, I think that he will miss the exhaustion.”
Just as the Urquidezes inspired Acuña to chase after his passion and find a way to make a positive impact in students’ lives, he strives to always be a positive, nurturing influence for students, alumni and anybody else on the University of Arizona campus.
“I would absolutely not be who I am today without his inspiration and guidance,” says Acuña. “He is the teacher that made me not only feel that I could take on the world but that I could actually be the change in it. His consistent lessons on compassion and understanding opened my eyes to understanding how students think, how I can help them succeed and be a forever mentor to them.”
One student group that Acuña has put countless hours into is the Bobcats Senior Honorary, which is made up of 13 seniors who are in charge of the Homecoming parade, Club Olympics, the Homecoming King and Queen voting process, the lighting of “A” Mountain, and other projects outside of Homecoming week.
Robyn McLaughlin, who serves as the Director of Maricopa County Alumni Engagement at the Alumni Association, knows how much the lack of in-person interaction this semester has been detrimental for everyone at the university, but especially for Acuña and the Bobcats.
“I even told him, ‘I miss going to the office and seeing them,’ because they would all just be in his office, like randomly during the day and asking questions or working on stuff,” says McLaughlin. “He’s super engaged with them, they love working with him and he really loves working with them, because before he worked in higher education, he worked in a high school, so he loves working with students in that advisory role.”
McLaughlin’s face lit up when I brought up Acuña’s commitment to ensuring that Homecoming 2020 would happen, despite all the hurdles in the way and uncertainty surrounding the spread of COVID-19 on the University of Arizona campus.
“When we were first talking about it, other schools were just canceling their Homecoming altogether, and Marc was like, ‘No! We need to do something. It can be all virtual, but we need to do something . . . We cannot skip a year of Homecoming!’”
She also knows exactly how much time and effort Acuña puts in to make sure Homecoming runs smoothly each year, as she got to experience it first-hand last year.
“So I was pretty new, I was only there a month or two before Homecoming and everyone was like, “You’re going nonstop for like four days!,” says McLaughlin. “But Marc had me with him the entire time to learn things, so I was in the golf cart running around to the different events with him. It was a lot of fun, because I’d only been to Homecoming as an alum, so I didn’t know, behind-the-scenes, exactly how much is involved and how many different things were going on at the same time that were part of it.”
Even though Acuña won’t have a week worth of outdoor activities and won’t be running around to different events in his golf cart this year, he’s just as excited and eager to make this Homecoming one to remember during one of the most eventful and memorable years in recent history.