Elsa Mercado, Ph.D., is the first Mexican-American to complete the doctorate program in Spanish and Portuguese at Vanderbilt University
By Dan Steffes (TM ’03)
Spending her childhood both on Milwaukee’s south side and with her extended family in rural Mexico, Elsa Mercado (TM ’03) refers to herself as a “Milwauxican.”
“It was very rural, almost like you were stepping into the 19th century,” Mercado explained. “My mom was the first woman to wear pants in her region. That’s why my parents decided to come to the U.S. — to give us a life that afforded us opportunities they didn’t have.”
Faith has long been an integral part of her family’s life. Her family lived in Mexico under Calles Law, which essentially outlawed the practice of Catholicism. Under the Calles Law, the Mexican government seized all Church properties, including schools and places of worship, and expelled Catholic priests from the country.
“My grandmother received her first Communion in hiding from a priest who became a martyr. For us, our faith is huge – it’s like our language; it’s another way of being for us. It has been taken away from us in the past, so it’s something we hold very dear.”
“Thomas More had this intimacy that Notre Dame had. People cared; people remembered your name. There was an investment in individuality while also honoring the mission. It just felt like home to me.”
Mercado stayed busy as a St. Thomas More student, playing soccer and basketball and serving as president of the Latino Student Organization. She reflects fondly on her time at the school, especially the memories of her teachers and coaches.
“Mrs. [Ann Marie] Dorn, Mrs. [Vicki] Nast, Mr. [Gregg] Hermann – still the best English class I’ve ever taken in my life. My JV basketball coach, Coach [Joe] Switalski, and Mrs. [Karen] Daluge really stand out as well. I used to say, ‘Mrs. Daluuuuuge!’ and it became a thing.”
She has carried lessons from these teachers and coaches with her throughout her life.
“I want to have Mrs. Dorn’s open-door policy. I want to have Mrs. Nast’s open-mindedness and say, ‘these are the resources that are available to you, and I’m going to help you through it.’ Or Mr. Hermann’s approach of ‘I don’t care that you think this is too hard. You’re capable of doing this, and you’re going to do it well.’
But it’s a lesson from her former basketball coach Joe Switalski that most sticks with her.
“Every time I went up to shoot a free throw, I would panic. I would look over [to the bench], and he would yell ‘CONFIDENCE!’ — that’s all he would say. And it would work. I’d think, ‘you’re right, I should be confident. You’ve got the answers inside yourself, kid. Drown out the noise, be confident.’”
After graduating from St. Thomas More, her confidence took her to UW-Milwaukee, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in international studies with a focus on Latin America. She started her professional life in the nonprofit sector and eventually moved on to a career in sales. But she was left wanting more and kept coming back to the question: “how can I help?”
“I wanted to write down women’s stories because I didn’t see them reflected in literature or pop culture.” While many believe books, movies, TV, music, and other forms of artistic expression mirror society and culture, she saw a stark absence in stories about people like her and her family. This desire to explore stories of marginalized people led her to the Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt.
“I went back to grad school to study racial, political, and national identities. I wanted to know: ‘why are people so passionate about something that is not tangible? These identities are such a big part of who we are and how we interact with everybody.”
As the first Mexican-American in her Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt, Mercado felt the pressure of being a pioneer in the program.
“Being the first comes with big responsibilities; you don’t have the luxury of being mediocre. There’s always a spotlight, and you have to be ‘on’ at all times. The most important thing is to realize they’re watching to see how you will do. And if you do well, it’ll open the door for others.” Mercado’s success has already opened doors for others; another Latino student, coincidentally from Wisconsin, is currently enrolled in the program.
Now equipped with a doctorate, she thought once again, “how can I help?” She considered going into academia but realized she wanted to put her studies into real-world practice. She applied for a position at Nike, where she now works as the Education Lead for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).
“It just fit,” Mercado said about her new role. “Some companies make DEI a checklist item, and once they check it off, they move on. Nike really cares. They recognize that there are systemic barriers in place that make it difficult for everyone to succeed. For example, Nike makes shoes accessible for people with physical disabilities; they can just step into their shoes.”
Her work at Nike focuses on trainings for employees covering a wide range of topics – disabilities, race, gender, ethnic minorities, language, and more. She globalizes and standardizes training materials so that concepts maintain their meaning and relevance in all cultures and languages.
In her spare time, Mercado has returned to some of her favorite hobbies. She enjoys salsa dancing and loves to cook, though not necessarily for herself.
“My family is very affectionate with food. We feed you; that’s how we show we care.” She still wants to write down stories of women; she has interviewed both of her grandmothers, one of whom has since passed away.
Now based in Oregon with Nike, she returns to Milwaukee fairly regularly to see her family, and she looks forward to visiting St. Thomas More soon as well.
“I think back to high school – the retreats were unique, the sports and the culture of morning announcements and feeling invested in everyone around me. It’s very special to have connected with these people while you were becoming a person yourself. You got to influence each other, grow, and give each other grace, and it’s really wonderful to stay connected with folks that remind you of who you were at that point in your life.”
To view more 50th Anniversary Alumni Spotlights, visit tmore.org/50th.