Passion for People

June 19, 2015

Through clubs, organizations and campus job, Nathaly Cifuentes Riano embraces life

Nathaly Cifuentes Riano is a hugger. The Johnson County Community College student (and student activities ambassador) works at the Student Welcome Desk – a perfect job for a person who loves meeting people.

“I’m passionate about meeting people and expanding my learning,” she said. “Johnson County (Community College) lets me do both.”

Cifuentes Riano said she had to rein in her natural impulses to embrace in greeting others. In her native Colombia, hugging is a societal norm. “We don’t have ‘personal space,’” she explained.

“In Bogota, we just don’t have the space as here,” she said, gesturing around the mostly empty tables of JCCC food court during a mid-afternoon interview.

When she first moved to the United States, she realized some Americans were startled by such ebullient affection.

“I learned to start asking if I could hug people,” she said, laughing. “I learned that some people are fine with it, but others are not.”

Learning about cultures

At her first International Club meeting, she innocently hugged a male student in greeting. Immediately she knew she had done something wrong. Later, she learned that in his country, members of the opposite sex did not hug. What she had done was not acceptable in his country, even though the embrace was on American soil.

Cifuentes Riano joined Model United Nations and worked side by side with students from Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi’an, China. She was able to travel to New York City as a delegate. “New York City reminded me a lot of Bogota,” she said.

Her activities led her to develop friendships with people of other cultures. “It definitely helped develop my English skills,” Cifuentes Riano said.

At home, she tried to speak English. She lives with her aunt, who is bilingual. “At first, something just didn’t click. Every time I got stuck, I switched to Spanish,” she said. “I realized, ‘I need to make friends that are not Latin people.’”

So she did.

Joining clubs and organizations

In addition to the International Club and Model United Nations, she joined Phi Theta Kappa, the college honors society. Her honors project analyzed the environmental benefits of JCCC’s Galileo’s Pavilion.

Outside of JCCC, she volunteers at the Kauffman Center in Kansas City. “I love the arts,” she said. “I earned my 100-hour badge. It was a way to train my ear” in the cadences and nuances of English as well as a great way to see entertainment on a student’s budget, she said.

She performs as well, dancing the native folk dances of Colombia at the Colombian Cultural Association.

“I see dancing as a way to share my culture,” she said.

Creating a difference

Cifuentes Riano describes herself as “bubbly” and wants a career in public relations. Helping students and visitors at the Student Welcome Desk comes naturally for her, she said, even if things like deadlines do not.

“I’m more about dreaming, so I am not so good on deadlines,” she said.

Still, she managed to plan and run the college’s last two blood drives. Her hard work paid off, as the Community Blood Center recognized JCCC as the second-largest blood donor amongst area colleges.

Keith Davenport, manager of student activities and leadership development, supervises Cifuentes Riano in her job as student activities ambassador.

“It was Nathaly’s personality that landed her the job in our office, and it’s her personality that continues to shine. She’s great at building relationships with her coworkers and other students on campus,” he said. “You can tell that Nathaly genuinely cares about you and what’s going on in your life, and that goes a long way.”