Rooted in Heritage: An Interview with President Wayne Lesperance
Although Hispanic Heritage Month 2022 has passed, NEC honors our interim president’s roots with this interview.
My name is Wayne Lesperance. I am the President of New England College, and this is my 24th year at NEC.
Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to acknowledge my past, my roots. I think of my grandfather and my grandmother on their farm. I think of my cousins and uncles and aunts. You know, the extended family and friends. My grandparents had this little piece of land in Puerto Rico where they grew sugarcane primarily, and that was sugarcane that would go to Bacardi to produce rum.
I remember as a little boy, my grandfather taking me out and walking through the fields, and we’d see all the things they were growing. He was just a really good man, and I remember him telling me—he reached down and scooped up a little bit of earth—“You know, Wayne, at the end of the day, it all comes back to this. It all comes back to the earth.” That sticks with me. It’s a very humbling and grounding thing. When you think about all the stuff around us, the things we spend so much time caring about and worrying about—for him in his life, it was the earth, the soil, and what could grow from that. These are for me very wholesome values I hold onto. I really appreciate that for my family in Puerto Rico, their livelihoods were based on what they could grow.
When we get to Hispanic Heritage Month, I think back to that—the music; the food, which is amazing, you know. And the laughter, that laughter that seemed to be part of every conversation, every meal, every activity. There’s this richness of life, and so [Hispanic Heritage Month] means something to me.
And so many Americans who aren’t Hispanic have an interest in Hispanic culture; that’s so cool. That is, to me, one of the great things about the United States—that on a day in March, I can be Irish; I can be Italian for a day. I can celebrate other cultures, and that’s awesome. What a special place to be in when you can learn about different people and a get a taste of their cultures.
We have a huge Indian population in our graduate programs at NEC, and we have celebrated their holidays. We’ve played cricket with them—which I still don’t understand, but I try—and it’s fun because you’re learning something new about people, and you get to see their laughter and their cultural experiences and what makes them happy. There’s nothing better than that in my view. So, whether it’s Hispanic Heritage Month or some other group of people, the opportunity to celebrate those cultures and experiences is exciting and fun.
I was born in a small town called Bayamon, Puerto Rico. My mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico; my father was in the U.S. Navy and was stationed there. They met and fell in love and got married, and I came later. I lived there until I was six, so my identity is very much tied to my Puerto Rican roots. My first language was Spanish, and I learned English later. My religion is Catholicism, and that comes from that upbringing in an Hispanic culture in place like Puerto Rico. I was very close to my grandparents, and I’m still close to my grandmother who turned 106 this year.
It’s a really important formative experience to grow up someplace where it’s very different from what we have here in the States. It makes me appreciate what we have in the U.S. So, from Puerto Rico, we eventually settled in Virginia. My dad was in the Navy, as I mentioned, so I grew up in Virginia Beach, a Navy town. I had a fantastic educational experience. I got to play football, which is my passion and sport I love the most. And over time, going from the beaches of Puerto Rico to the beaches of Virginia—very different, by the way—and growing up in the South, I learned a lot of things about what it means to be an American. Especially in a state like Virginia, where so many of our founders are from, my love of history and international relations and politics really developed over the years, through these experiences of seeing the world.
I had aunts and uncles and parents who really wanted me to travel; they wanted to make sure I had a sense of the world, so when I was 10 years old, we went all through Mexico, parts of Central America. As I got older, I traveled to Europe, Egypt a couple of times. I ended up studying Arabic in college because I wanted to focus on that part of the world. That sort of internationalization of my life experience has really informed my view, my commitment to diversity and inclusion. When you see humanity in many different forms in the world, you come to appreciate that just because we look different or speak differently or pray differently, it doesn’t mean that we’re any less human. To me, that’s the value: that humanity we all share.
I have the privilege of being the first Hispanic president of New England College, which I think is awesome. I know my mom is excited about that. She wants to send a note to the newspapers in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, and say, “This little boy from Puerto Rico has done this thing,” and that’s pretty exciting, too.