Justin Gomez calls 2020 a whirlwind year, but not for the same reasons a lot of us might think. He started his job at UNLV as assistant director of career & professional development in the career services office in January. And in June, he became a U.S. citizen.
Gomez’s free spirit has taken him from Belize to Las Vegas, to California, and back to Las Vegas. Through it all, his friendly, generous spirit comes through. He’s quick to laugh about his own adventures and is even willing to share the secret to finishing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
What do you do in your position in career services?
Essentially, my role is to help lead career education for students and alumni. I also focus on building partnerships with different colleges and departments across campus, so that we can scale what we do in terms of career and professional development — essentially, reach more students using the resources we have. We really want to empower other people, so that we have a “career everywhere” type of program — where career services people are not the only ones who are involved in career and professional development. So that anywhere on campus students are able to find resources or get connected to people who can help them along their career journey.
How has working in the remote environment of COVID affected you?
I’ve never been so productive in my life! (laughs)
What can't you get done remotely that you most want to do?
I really want to open the Southern Nevada Career Studio, which would be similar to the Nevada Career Studio at our sibling campus, UNR. This would provide greater drop-in access to career and professional development services for students and alumni.
What's the silver lining in all of this for you?
What’s something you’ve done that’s daring?
Well, I definitely don’t think of myself as a risk-taker, but when I look at my life, I’ve done a lot of daring things. I grew up in a rural village in Belize, and when I was 16, I moved to Las Vegas. Looking back, that was daring. Then after taking courses at CSN, I applied to UC Merced and drove out there in the middle of the night having never seen it before. When the sun came up, it was nothing like I expected. It’s like you’re in the middle of nowhere. I had never been to California. I was thinking we would see celebrities walking around all the time — things I’d seen in the movies (laughs). I didn’t know how provincial California could be. It was like I was in a farm town, and I was looking for the classic California college experience. But it worked out well for me anyway; after a while I liked it there. It seems like the daring things I’ve done have all turned out well for me. I got my bachelor’s degree, and then I worked in higher ed at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Now I have a great position at UNLV.
Tell us a little more about growing up in Belize.
So Belize is really Central American, in terms of geographical location, right? But in terms of culture, it's not so much Latin American. It’s much more Caribbean. It’s one of the most diverse places culturally that anybody could possibly think of.
I grew up in a multicultural household. My dad is Mestizo in that he is indigenous. And then my mom, she's Indian, so her ancestors came from India to Jamaica and then to Belize, during indentureship. Also, I was born 14 years after my four other siblings. My mom was 5 months pregnant before she realized it; they didn’t think they could have more children. I believe I was really meant to be here; my mom calls me her miracle child. My dad was 50 when I was born. My youngest sister was 14, so basically I grew up with a lot of parents (laughs).
So that's the kind of household that I grew up in, having to understand two sets of cultures at home and then out in the real world, you know, you have to interact with other people who come from different cultural backgrounds and identities. I also grew up in a more rural area, so I did not have the city experience in Belize.
When I was 16, my oldest sister had moved to Las Vegas and she sent for me; she wanted me to have a better life. And I went.
So in addition to starting your job at UNLV, what else has changed for you this year?
This year has been a whirlwind of a year. I actually became a U.S. citizen this year, so I'm really excited about that.
Thank you. Yeah. I waited more than 12 years to become a U.S. citizen, from 2007 when I first immigrated here to June of 2020. And it was totally different because of COVID. I was sworn in as a citizen on Cisco WebEx! The judge was all the way in Reno, and she did the swearing-in ceremony over WebEx. There were 20 of us in a room and they had us spaced out six feet around.
It was a really quick and different process, you know, because usually you're able to go to the courthouse and you're able to bring family. I wasn't. It wasn't as it typically is, but definitely more efficient.
What did you do last weekend?
Well, my partner and I are in the process of buying a house, so that’s what I was working on. Typically, we’d go hiking in Red Rock. When we moved back to Las Vegas, the first thing we did was buy an annual pass to Red Rock; we like to hike with our dogs every Sunday. We have a mini-pin mix, Dug, and a mini Australian shepherd mix, Coco. Our goal is to eventually hike every trail in Red Rock. But it’s so hot right now.
What are your other favorite pastimes when it’s too hot to hike?
I’m an avid reader. My favorite author is actually Gabrielle Garcia Marquez. This summer I’m re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s one of those books that people never get through. They say something like 90 percent of people who start reading it never finish it. So I really wanted to read it again because I've discovered the secret for finishing the book.
Care to share that secret?
When you read the book, you have to read each chapter at a time, the full chapter. OK?
And the way that the book is written, it's written in a culture that’s pretty similar to where I grew up. In my culture in rural Belize, the women all gather in the kitchen and talk and tell stories, and as a child, you hear rumors, and that kitchen is a transformational place in our culture. Similarly, in the book, it’s people telling stories, and they talk about each other and they share rumors.
Oh, and don’t get caught up in all the names. Once that clicked for me, to see it chapter by chapter as people telling different stories, it made sense.
Thanks. I’ll try reading it again! What’s next for you?
When I got my degree in political science, I thought I would go to law school. But I had a mentor in higher ed who pointed out to me that everything I did was related to higher ed. A light bulb went off, and this fall, I’m starting my Ph.D. in higher ed.