Growing up in Hartford, Conn., Carmen Rey-Gomez’s household was steeped in the traditions of Puerto Rico, where her mother and father moved from in the 1960s. And like countless others who’d come to the United States from Latin countries before them, assimilating into American society was a mix of confusion, challenge, hard work and pride for her family.

“My parents were very adamant about maintaining language and culture,” says Rey-Gomez.

She learned English and became acquainted with other kids in her diverse inner-city neighborhood. “I straddled two different cultures,” she recalls. “I had an identity problem. Even though I was born here, people would ask, ‘Where are you really from?’ It served me well in the work that I do.”

Rey-Gomez is director of the Hispanic Institute at Hodges University, where she encounters and counsels students who experience the same struggles she did growing up.

Her father worked as an electrician—eventually retiring at 45 and becoming an entrepreneur—and her mom worked as a secretary (she’s now a case worker for a local community-based organization in Hartford). Her parents were known for their open-door policy. “Our home was the first place where people would come when they arrived from Puerto Rico. My parents would connect folks. That’s where we got our early training,” Rey-Gomez says. “My parents came here without knowing the language. They succeeded, and made sure we did.”

Her sister, Enid Rey, is the director of school choice in Hartford; and her brother, Ricardo Rey, is a Hartford firefighter.

Rey-Gomez attended Hartford College for Women, Central Connecticut State University and the University of Connecticut, where she received a master’s degree in social work. She was interested in advocacy, social justice, education and health and human services.

She worked as a community health interviewer, family educator and community advocate, and later at an HIV/AIDS mental health provider in Hartford. She eventually moved to Fort Myers, and in 2000 started at Edison State College as director of student support services.

In August 2008, Rey-Gomez was named director of the newly formed Hispanic Institute, which she’s establishing as a recognized leader within Lee and Collier counties that informs policymakers about issues vital to the growing Hispanic community. One goal is leveling the playing field for all to have an equal opportunity, and for all to be educated and achieve their highest academic, financial and economic goals.

“I hope that people really see [the Institute] as a resource they can utilize,” says Rey-Gomez, who has sons Danilo, 11, and Ariel, 8, with her husband, Oscar Gomez. “It is not for just Hispanic people, it’s for everyone.”