Kelly Zúñiga (Ed.D. ’05)
Kelly Zúñiga (Ed.D. ’05) is the CEO of the Holocaust Museum Houston and an adjunct lecturer at Texas A&M and Rice University. A San Diego native, she has lived in Houston for nearly 20 years, and was formerly Executive Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving at the University of Houston. She was awarded the M. Anne Murphy Award for Professional Advancement in 2016 for her passion and dedication to teaching her students about non-profit management and the art of fundraising.
LUNAR COUGAR: Why did you decide to earn your doctorate at UH?
KELLY ZUÑIGA: At the time, I was employed at UH as the Executive Director of Major Gifts and Planned Giving. In my work at UH I often collaborated with the Dean of Education and really enjoyed working with the College of Education faculty, so I was motivated to initiate my doctoral program there. In addition, The College of Education’s national ranking is quite high.
Why did you want to focus on education?
I have always been passionate about teaching but also enjoy working with students in general. Completing my Doctorate was very important in order to enter the field of higher education administration.
How do you use what you learned at UH during your Doctorate in your career now?
The broad-based curriculum in my Doctorate program was very helpful. I completed a minor in Cultural Studies, which focused on educational methods of different countries. I particularly enjoyed learning about educational methods of other communities, the importance of diversity in education, and how those varied educational systems work.
Understanding different educational organizations and how they interrelate with each other and their roles in broadbased education was also helpful. It gave me a greater appreciation for how difficult it is to develop curriculum and programming, and how challenging it can be to establish new programs and collaborate with different districts or with different entities. Then there’s the management component of learning how to manage people, motivate individuals, and work with all different types of people and varied backgrounds.
What is unique about the Holocaust Museum? Have you seen it evolve during your time there?
It’s a very special museum. There are eight Holocaust museums in the United States and we are considered the fourth-largest. Besides being a place of remembrance for those lost in the Holocaust, we’re also an education center. Our focus here at the museum is to educate the entire community — not just the Jewish community — on the importance of the lessons of the Holocaust: fighting hatred, apathy, and prejudice. Taking those lessons and communicating them effectively to the public is our mission.
We’re proud of the fact that we’ve integrated ourselves with the diverse community of Houston, by opening exhibitions that are relevant to those communities while still teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. For example, we had this beautiful exhibition, “The Art of Gaman,” which focused on the Japanese internment during WWII and the removal of their civil liberties — similar to what occurred to the Jews in Germany and throughout Europe when the Nuremberg laws were implemented.
About 26,000 students in school tours visit every year, and we have a program where Title I schools are provided free transportation to the Museum. Field trips are very expensive for schools and they don’t have the opportunity to have many field trips each year, so we are being accessible to diverse communities throughout Houston. It is really all about access to education and making it easy for people to have exposure to new thoughts and learning. There is no admission charge for children and students as well.
You’ve been such a huge part of UH’s fundraising in your past role here. Why do you feel it is important to support UH through philanthropy?
People give money for many different reasons, but I have to say the number one reason people are philanthropic is that they wish to have a legacy of their life, a legacy for their family, and a legacy for those that follow afterwards. It is so important, whether it is a gift to the annual fund that supports the operations of UH, or a planned gift where one chooses to benefit the organization with a bequest. What you’re doing is providing a future and a continuation of the institution that assisted you, so everyone can move forward.
It’s similar here at the Holocaust Museum Houston. The survivors that started this museum are very unique; the Jewish community pulled together and raised all of the money within the community to build the Museum. This building is now 20 years old and has been a very successful, operational institution. They did it to preserve their history and legacy for others to learn. I see a very common thread between people that wish to give to the University or religious institutions — it’s tied to remembrance and the future.
That’s amazing how the survivors banded together to build the museum. I’ve only lived here for two years but Houston seems like the kind of city where if you want to start a business or organization — as long as the idea is good and you’re willing to work hard — you can do it, and others will help you. What do you like best about living in Houston?
Being from San Diego, a lot of people say, “How can you possibly live anywhere else? Don’t you just miss it?” Actually, I don’t miss it at all. I love Houston’s beautiful sky and sun. But most of all, I love the people. And I agree — I think from the perspective of that can-do attitude that everyone says about Houston is true! The city is a very positive, innovative place to live and everybody is just really, really friendly here.
You’re a professor. What’s it like to juggle that role with your role at the Holocaust Museum?
It’s just such a different world, going from manager to professor. I actually really enjoy it, because I have the opportunity to meet people who are just entering the field of fundraising. I have the ability to share some of my knowledge and experiences, but also motivate them and get them excited about the field of fundraising.
Is there an upcoming exhibit or event at the Holocaust Museum that Houstonians should know about?
Yes! HMH has recently opened our first contemporary juried exhibit, “GENOCIDE: Man’s Inhumanity to Humankind,” which includes 65 selections representing 2D and 3D media. The works featured are from the more than 600 submissions by Texas area artists and explores the suffering humans are capable of bestowing on one another. “GENOCIDE” is the brainchild of Holocaust Museum Houston’s changing exhibitions committee, including Gus Kopriva, owner of the Redbud Gallery in Houston, and Clint Willour.
Do you have any advice you would want to share with UH students or those aspiring careers in education?
Don’t become discouraged — persistence is probably the most important thing that a student can have. Finishing is so important. It is worth it in the end.