Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Racism or curiosity? Where are you from?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Anyone with an accent, dark skin, or Asian features knows it. One of the most common questions we get asked is, “Where are you from?” Usually, it comes right after you exchange names but sometimes, if you’re a New York City cabbie for instance, that question may get asked even if your questioner hasn’t seen your face.

Humans are curious creatures, and most of the time those asking –myself included—are looking for a way to connect. When people find that you’re from their home town or city, they might ask you what school you went to. Or they might mention an acquaintance who lives in your town, works in your company or attends the same church. We do this all the time.

But what happens when people who were born in this country, or those who are second or third generation American, continue to be asked,

“Where are you from?” And when they answer,
“Newark, New Jersey,” they still get,
“No, really, where are you from?”
“Newark, New Jersey.”
“But where are your parents from?”
“Newark, New Jersey.”

Usually, this line of questioning doesn’t stop until you answer what they really want to know, “My great grand parents came from Guadalajara, Mexico.”

Although the intention of the person asking the question may be good (they may be interested in finding out more about you), the impact is often what we call a microaggression, a verbal or non-verbal act that is indirect and often invisible, through which people express prejudices in a covert way.

In this case, it is as if you are denying this person’s identity as an American. As if their identity is forever tied to that of their remote ancestors, something we don’t do with white, Anglo Saxon people. As a matter of fact, this question means something entirely different to a white person. It means what city or town were you born in. And if you kept on asking, “No, really, where are you from?” They’d look at you as if you were crazy or deaf.

Putting up with these kinds of microaggressions on a daily basis hurts, and inevitably, it creates resentment. Think of comments such as, “No offense but Hispanics are all loud. And don’t get me wrong, my best friend is Hispanic,” as if that qualified the speaker to generalize about a whole group. Or the surprised observation about an African American who speaks well, “She’s so articulate,” which in a subtle way implies most blacks are not. Or the comment, “When I look at you, I don’t see color. You are different than other Latinos (or Blacks),” denying that person’s dark skin which is part of their identity.

The truth is that there’s a microaggression in each one of these comments, although most likely those making them think they are being complimentary. The problem here is the incongruence between intention and impact.

I’m not pointing fingers. No one group owns the patent on microaggressions. At one time or another, most of us have said or done something that made someone different from us feel uncomfortable. Most of it comes from ignorance of what triggers these feelings in others. A lot of it is lack of cultural capital.

The best way to minimize these hurtful acts is to be aware of your intention and carefully imagine the impact that your words or behavior have on someone with a different background.

And if you really are curious about where your cabbie is from, maybe you could start by sharing something about yourself.

“Hey, I’m Peter Van Der Haas, and my parents are from Holland. What’s your heritage?” or “What’s your ancestry?” That may go a long way toward your cabbie taking the shortest route to your destination.

Mariela Dabbah’s new book Poder de Mujer was just released by Penguin.

This Op Ed appeared on Fox News Latino in March, 2012

The power of a bilingual brain

Friday, September 16th, 2011

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I’ve been an English language learner since I was 6 years old, first in my native Argentina and then as a young adult in the United States. I studied the language in an academic environment, thus my almost perfect fluency. “Almost” being the operative word here.

A few years ago when I began my career as a writer and public speaker, I decided to publicly acknowledge that I am prepositionally challenged. That’s right. On and in – two apparently innocuous monosyllables—have been at the forefront of my ongoing tango with English.

My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon (by now, my not-so-secret weapon), has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. And, as I believe in the literary adage “show, don’t tell,” here is one of our latest exchanges to help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap.

I had sent Susan a new Op-Ed, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”

Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!
Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?
Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where on (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. :-)
Me – You are such a great influence in me!
Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can’t catch a break.

In my defense (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s on a continent but in a country; in Manhattan but on Long Island. Come on! (Or should I go with “Come in, take a seat. Experience life as a second language learner!”)

Over the years, I have repeatedly studied the many rules that regulate prepositions trying to discover the patterns that elude me to no avail. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuroscientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, says that, according to her research, 5- and 6- year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work? Dr. Bialystok explains: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”

After reading this interview a few months ago, I felt a little bit better about my failures and began to plot a strategy. I was thinking of just mumbling something that sounds in-between on/in something like… “en” (which is the preposition we use in Spanish for both “in and on”) so nobody can tell which preposition I’m using. I was getting ready to start using my new solution when Susan called me out on doing something similar with two other pairs of words.

Susan – “Do you know the difference between ‘run’ and ‘ran’ and between ‘hang out’ and ‘hung out’? Because you always seem to mumble them and I always wonder which one you meant. I’m starting to think that you just don’t know which one is which.”

Me – “I just go with the same pronunciation for both because I can’t hear the difference between the present and the past tense and I can’t be bothered.”

Susan – “Well, that’s like me saying ‘ella fui a su casa’ instead of ‘ella fue a su casa’ and telling you I can’t be bothered,” she said using as an example the wrong conjugation of the verb “to go” in Spanish. Now that got my attention.

So, I’ve decided to practice my pronunciation of present and past tense for these two verbs because I believe the tense of the verb is often critical to understanding the meaning of what you’re saying.

But when it comes to on/in, I’ll let that slide in support of Dr. Bialystok’s research. It’s now obvious to me that my bilingual brain doesn’t identify those two as relevant information.

This column has appeared on Fox News Latino and on the Huffington Post.

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The power of social media to move the needle on diversity and inclusion

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

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After two weeks of writing Op Eds and blogs on why there weren’t any Latinas listed on Crain’s New York list of Most Powerful Women of New York, after appearing on Café CNN, Notimujer, NY1 “Pura Política” and just when I began to think that it would take a very long time to change things, something magical happened.

I got an email from Danielle Kwateng, Editorial Assistant at Glamour magazine, who read my Seriously Crains? No Powerful Latinas in New York? Op Ed and asked me if I could nominate a few downright fabulous Latinas under 25 to be honored in a group of 21 women across the country. She thought that through Latinos in College I was sure to be connected with lots of women who would be a perfect fit.

I was ecstatic. It meant someone was listening and was ready to take action. Someone “got it” and understood that if you want more diversity in the lists you are creating you just have to reach out to circles of people who are different from the ones you usually draw your talent from and ask for help. That there is no lack of Latino leaders in this country. There’s a lack of awareness by non-Latinos of who the leaders are.

Danielle’s email also proves the power of social media to move the needle on diversity and inclusion. It is only through the large number of people who shared with their networks the columns and blogs I wrote on this topic that the right person read the piece and acted on it. It proves that when we raise our voices and work collaboratively to help each other we can achieve great feats in a relatively short time.

Here’s to all of you who have helped get this message out and who continue to do so day in and day out. This is only the beginning. Cheers!

Scholarships year-round

Monday, November 8th, 2010

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I know lots of top students who graduate with huge student loans and sadly, the main reason is not that they were turned down for financial aid or for scholarships while they were in college. No. The main reason is that they didn’t know where to find the money! So, let’s get a few things straight so that you don’t carry the same burden on your shoulders when you graduate.

1. Every year, you must fill out the FAFSA as soon after January 1st as possible, so the government and your school can establish how much grant money you’re eligible for.
2. Visit the Financial Aid office regularly and befriend the staff there. Explain your situation and ask for tips on scholarships you can apply to (sometimes they know about local scholarships that few people know about,) special programs they are familiar with, etc. I know many students who got most of their scholarships this way, by making their presence felt at the Financial Aid office.
3. Use a few different Search Engines and Websites to look for scholarships. For example, use www.fastweb.com and www.scholarships.com. Fill out the form with as much information about you as possible. These engines will find all sorts of scholarships available to your situation: religion, geographic location, major, labor affiliation of your parents, etc.
4. There are scholarships available after Freshman year as more corporations are interested in supporting students entering their industries and make money available for Engineering, Math, Science, Medicine, Business, Agriculture, Green Technology, etc. The secret is for you to continue searching.
5. Ask locally. Many small businesses want to support their local college and offer scholarships that are not listed on the search engines. Your librarian or Financial Aid person in your school should know. In addition, many alumni set specific funds for certain students. For instance, I know of someone with different colored-eyes who set up a fund for students with her same condition.
6. Consider applying for scholarships as an year-round sport. Schedule time to research, write your essays and put your packages together. Make sure you calendar any deadlines. When you look at the alternative, it’s time well invested!

Like Latinos in College on Facebook to take advantage of a wonderful community that is always there to give you ideas and support your growth!

What they don’t teach in college

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

mariela-at-working-mother-conference

I just finished writing a short essay for an Anthology of Latinas in Higher Education. It was an interesting piece to write as it made me focus on my college years and the fact that often times I feel as if I had forgotten lots of what I learned. I relive this feeling every weekend when I participate in a Spanish book club in Manhattan and I realize that my peers freely quote from all sorts of novels and poems and even though I have read most of them, I can’t.

I used to think that I suffered from some kind of memory loss. It was worrying and also a bit embarrassing to be one of a small handful of writers in the group and to keep quiet at critical parts of the discussion.

Writing the essay forced me to think about what I learned in college during those six years while I worked on my Masters in Philosophy and Literature. (In Argentina, you enter college and graduate with a Masters degree.) Yes, I read more novels than I can count, and I took four years of Latin and ancient Greek; yes I took Linguistics, Semiotics, History of Philosophy, and all those interesting courses you’re supposed to take when you work on a Liberal Arts degree. But if you ask me to sit down and explain the basics of Parmenides theory, I’d be hard press to come up with the answer.

And yet I know that it was during those formative years that I learned how to structure my own thinking and writing and to create layers of meaning. It was thanks to the hundreds of books that I read and the hours spent interpreting them that I developed the ability to translate complex thoughts and topics into simple ideas for large audiences. These are things you don’t go to college for, when in reality they are the main reason why you do. They are almost a side effect of doing all the hard work in school. The Vitamin D you get from being in the sun when the only thing you were after was a good sun tan.

The experience of spending those years exploring my interests was not only critical to shaping my thinking and worldview, my inner voice and reasoning skills; but in addition, it was instrumental in building my confidence. Those years shaped me, they gave legitimacy to my talents, and they opened up a world of opportunities only available to those who are able to express their ideas clearly.

Would I sound smarter during our book club discussions if I remembered my literary periods better? Probably. Would that make me more effective in my chosen career? Very unlikely.

So I made my peace with the fact that, even though on the surface it seems as though I should be good at something I’ve gone to college for (such as literary analysis, for instance), different people learn very different lessons from the same teachers.

The fact that I have some strong memory loss when it comes to remembering the characteristics of a particular literary movement doesn’t mean that I’ve wasted my education. It means that I selectively remember skills I learned which were not even in the syllabus and that to me are far more aligned with my goals and passion.

Generation Y in the workplace

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Abercrombie & Fitch Gen Y employees present at ALPFA regional conference in DC

Abercrombie & Fitch Gen Y employees present at ALPFA regional conference in DC


When it comes to younger employees in the workplace, I’m fascinated by the resistance that so many managers are experiencing. I was at a conference last week where we heard a great presentation by a Gen Y woman about Gen Yers. She was dressed with jeans, a cut off T-shirt and a short, informal jacket. Not your regular business attire but very appropriate for the issues she was discussing: “Gen Yers are different; they don’t dress like their older colleagues; they don’t think like you, so deal with it!” She was very vivacious, smart and funny and brought home various ways to get along with this generation that outnumbers the two previous generations of Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

After the 45-minutes long presentation about why the Millennials are the way they are and how to best deal with them, you could sense a distinct split reaction in the audience. Some of us loved the presenter. Some disliked her so much they wished they could wipe the grin off her face and, while they were at it, wipe the grins off the faces of all the members of this new generation that they don’t understand.

However, if many in the audience could actually hear some of the points that this woman raised regarding the creation of this generation — namely that they’ve been raised by over-indulgent Baby Boomer parents who provided everything from Kindergarten consultants to Math Summer Camps and volunteer opportunities in Guatemala, bought them every electronic gadget under the sun starting at the tender age of three, and encouraged them to be inquisitive and stand up for what they believe in — maybe they’ll identify with those parents and realize they bear some of the responsibility for the outcome.

And if they could step away for a minute from their “I’m right; you’re wrong” way of thinking and hear the presenter’s wise observations regarding how to manage this generation (among some of her tidbits she emphasized explaining why things need to be done in a certain way, allowing for work flexibility, offering Gen Yers the electronic gadgets they consider vital to functioning, and understanding that they welcome coaching and guidance from adults), perhaps they’ll learn some strategies that will help them better deal not only with their employees but with their kids as well.

It’s always difficult for one generation to welcome a new one in the workplace. But the Millennials have so much to offer in terms of creativity, energy, social entrepreneurship spirit, intrinsic understanding of technology, and leveraging the power of a flat world that we should all make an effort to help them transition into the workforce seamlessly and to develop the skills that are still necessary to succeed. They are inheriting a less than ideal world with plenty of major crises to attend to, none of which they helped create. I, for one, want to make sure they are well prepared to deal with what’s facing them.

Putting STEM on the Latino map

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

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On April 1st, top thought leaders from the public, private and non profit sectors got together for the Latino Education conference organized by Latino Magazine in Washington DC. The conference featured great speakers and panelists who are experts and practitioners in the space.

The main theme of the conference was furthering the involvement of Latino students in the STEM fields. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) You wonder why is this so important as to warrant a conference on the topic? Well, thirty years ago, the US was number one in graduating high school and college students. We were leading the world in science and math scores. Thirty years later we are near the bottom half of the developing world. Given that 25% of our country’s Kindergarten students are Latinos, and our community has a 50% dropout rate, the situation presents a huge challenge for the United States future.

These are some of the key learnings I’d like to share with you:

  • Eight out of the top ten jobs of the future are STEM field related
  • There are no lack of programs that are helping students succeed in high school and pursue a college education with emphasis in STEM
  • There is no shortage of talent in the Latino community but institutions, organizations and companies need to learn how to identify it better
  • Training teachers to teach STEM subjects is critical to the success of students
  • Taking an AP course and passing an AP exam increases a Latino student’s chances to graduate college from 15% to 65%
  • Passing Algebra by 8th grade is a great predictor of college success
  • It’s critical to scale up programs that work and to work with partners
  • We need to continue informing Latino parents and students of what’s available in terms of resources, opportunities, organizations, etc. so they can take advantage of all these.

    My question to you is the following: Are you doing anything that is related to this field that others need to know about, or are you aware of resources, initiatives, organizations that help students engage in this important field? Let me know!

    I’d like to continue to give visibility to those who are working in this field to help Latino students succeed.

    Non traditional ways to pay for college

    Saturday, March 13th, 2010

    mariela-in-cnn-newsroom

      I was recently interviewed on CNN’s Newsroom about paying for college and I decided to tackle this issue from a different angle. Instead of talking about loans and scholarships, as I often do, I talked about students conducting their own fund raising efforts (via raffles, concerts, parties, email writing campaigns) and exploring micro lending.

      The idea is to encourage the Millennial generation that is so technologically savvy and so adept at social-networking to think about paying for college from a different perspective.

      At our Latinos in College initiative we’d like to start a conversation about what you are doing to pay for school other than taking out a loan or getting a job. We’d like for you to share with the world ideas that might help students become empowered when it comes to paying for college.

      Here are a few more ideas for all of us who are interested in this issue to consider:

  • Start thinking about micro-lending to fund individual student loans
  • Engage college alumni in micro-donating to students at their Alma maters. A group of Harvard grads has started a company to lend money to Harvard students and are looking to expand soon.
  • Support websites like Lily’s List that function as wedding registries where students can list their loan and provide it to their family and friends to help them repay it
  • Open 529 plans for young children and provide the number to friends and relatives so that they can deposit money over the years in lieu of expensive gifts. (Here’s a question for you: wouldn’t it be better for your daughter to have a good education paid for, rather than a huge Quinceañera or Sweet Sixteenth birthday party?)

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you are doing that is working. This is just the beginning of a larger conversation!

  • Women leading women

    Sunday, November 15th, 2009

    dsc06735I’ve just presented at a Latina Empowerment and Development conference organized by Latinas Unidas de Harvard, a group of unbelievable young female leaders helping each other become our leaders of the future.

    Many of the organizers and participants are the first in their families to attend college. When you add to that the fact that they are in Harvard, one of this country’s most prestigious universities, (and other top universities represented by many attendees such as: MIT, Wellesley College, Brandeis University) you can imagine the impact this has on their families and in our community at large,

    I interviewed several of the students and here are a few tips they shared with me.

    1. Although students admitted at Harvard have a strong academic profile, that is not the key element that admissions officers take into consideration. They look at the individual and in their quest for a diverse campus that offers a rich experience to their students, they admit students with unique and interesting life experiences.

    2. Many students, both US citizens/residents and foreign students have taken advantage of Harvard’s Middle Income initiative and are getting a full free ride! You’ll hear them talk in upcoming clips we’ll post. Which means, these students are getting a 200,000 education for FREE. Leaving college with NO DEBT. How many of you, are either making the decision to attend or already attending a community college or state university because it’s less expensive than a private school?

    I met several students who work at the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program and the Admissions office and they are willing to help any of you who is interested in finding out more about how to apply to Harvard, to give you feedback on your essays or anything you may need to consider attending a top school.

    I hope you take advantage of their generosity and post comments here and through www.latinosincollege.com so we can connect you with them. It doesn’t matter if others say you are not cut for a Tier 1 school. It’s up to you to create a remarkable future for yourself.

    Students looking to make money?

    Sunday, July 5th, 2009
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    Latinos in College, the nationwide public awareness campaign to help increase the number of Hispanic/Latino students who graduate from college, is implementing a strategy that offers students across the country the opportunity to make money.

    Here’s an idea of what it entails:

  • Contacting local high schools and universities to tell them about our initiative
  • Offering our student and parent workshops and the Latinos in College: your Guide to Success book
  • Conducting student and/or parent workshops

    You are:

  • Interested in helping Latinos and Latinas graduate from college
  • A college student or recent grad
  • Self motivated, perseverant
  • A great communicator
  • Good talking to groups
  • Comfortable calling people you don’t know
  • If you are interested in finding out more, contact us at: mariela@latinosincollege.com. Please share this posting with your friends and colleagues on your social networks.