On Thursday, after having served children at Naval Air Station Lemoore to celebrate Month of the Military Child, I drove up the gorgeous, uber-green Central Valley to the city of Turlock.
I passed Atwater, the town where Castle Air Force Base once trained military aircrews. That’s where I did my training as a young Air Force lieutenant to learn how to fly with a crew and operate a KC-135R refueling tanker. I smiled recalling those 5 months of training after graduating from Undergraduate Navigator Training in Sacramento and getting my silver wings. I recalled the excellent Castle Air Museum of fascinating military airplanes that’s located there now that we enjoyed with our kids last year. Good times!
This time however, I was on my way to serve as the featured speaker at the Noche de Inspiración at Dutcher Middle School in Turlock. How that invitation came to be is a classic social networking story: my BFF Sonya Sigler has a friend from high school named Janet Smith. Janet because curious about my background after I tagged Sonya on Facebook and started looking into the work I do. She then connected me with her daughter’s former teacher, suggesting me as a bilingual, bicultural speaker for her event. It was this dual-immersion teacher at Dutcher, Maria Alex Carrillo Prasad, who issued the invitation to me. Thanks Mark Zuckerberg! And thanks Alex for sending ALL the photos in this post.
As I arrived and began to unload boxes of books, it started to rain a bit (of course – it never fails!) Janet, Alex and others quickly helped me unload and get everything set up inside for the evening event for about 150 parents, students, educators and administrators.
I immediately spotted half a dozen Latina students sitting in the front row -always a good sign -they’re not trying to hide in the back like too many kids this age. Behind them, sat some English-speaking students who have been learning in both English and Spanish since kindergarten. I was pumped up looking at these excited young faces. I was ready to tell my story of growing up as a child of Mexican immigrants and becoming an ambicultural American Latina and a multicultural, globally-savvy professional. I was ready to inspire and answer this question some people sometimes ask: WHY should we continue to study in two languages?
I answered this by sharing specific instances where in my professional life, I was offered extraordinary opportunities to work somewhere in the world because of my cultural competencies and my language skills. Among these was an operational leadership assignment with NATO in the spectacular medieval city of Vicenza in northern Italy, 30 minutes from Venice. I was selected while serving in the Air Force because my personnel records showed fluency with Spanish AND a conversational level with Italian.
Another memorable opportunity I shared was offered to me in my final year in the military. The requirements listed were both an aeronautical rating and fluency with the Spanish language. This one landed me at the U.S. Embassy in Quito, Ecuador for four unforgettable months of work that required me to speak both languages daily and with very high-level military officers and people in the host nation government. I emphasized to the audience that those who do not possess these language skills will never even know of the opportunities they missed simply because those experiences will not be offered to them. The winners in the 21st century will be those who can speak two or more languages and master cultural competency skills that will enable them to be globally mobile. They will of course also be able to work cross-culturally with people from anywhere on the planet, as they come to the USA. Being monolingual is so 20th century and fast becoming a disadvantage. I cited this New American Economy report in which the demand for bilingual workers in the USA MORE THAN DOUBLED in the last five years: “In 2010, there were roughly 240,000 job postings aimed at bilingual workers; by 2015, that figure had ballooned to approximately 630,000.”
The local paper summarized the evening’s key messages and perfectly captured the essence of the heartfelt students’ presentations in two languages. Here’s the story in the Turlock Journal.
The school principal Mr. Lucas purchased a carton of my Latinnovating books to inspire students. Latinnovating showcases people with higher education credentials and successful entrepreneurship records – the latter towards which MANY bilingual, bicultural adults gravitate these days. The books were raffled off and I enjoyed sitting in the back of the room signing and personalizing each book to the students, parents and educators who won copies.
I LOVED that part – signing time was time for asking students questions about what they will takeaway from tonight’s presentation. They said they enjoyed:
- how I encouraged them to rebel against narrow, traditional mindsets about how their lives are supposed to turn out because of to whom they were born
- the story and pictures of my large, Mexican immigrant family because it mirrors their own families and that gives them so much hope
- that I shared very specific information about WHO helped me navigate the college application and scholarship application processes. Like my parents, most of their parents cannot help them through this.
- that I told them THEY have to own the process and ask the questions to seek the help and answers they need
- the examples of special work assignments I was able to experience BECAUSE I spoke Spanish and English fluently. (I encouraged them to learn a third language later in life as I did while at Berkeley in college.)
- the joy I shared that comes with accomplishments achieved FAR from home after daring to leave at age 18, celebrated with my family who has never missed a graduation ceremony – ever.
- That I reminded their parents to think LONG-TERM and be willing to let them go far away to study at a university
- That I reassured their parents that moving away to college does not mean abandoning their parents (something I find that many immigrant parents fear, as did my own parents)
I of course also asked about their aspirations and from their answers, it’s obvious these educators in Turlock are creating a culture of HIGH expectations for students. These one-to-one chats with students provide me much insight and hope.
Several parents asked me to take pictures with their children as they received Latinnovating books. Other parents with younger children purchased bilingual Captain Mama books and asked me to sign, personalize and take a picture with their kids. I loved it all!
These moments when I know I’ve touched many hearts by sharing the miracles that strung together make up my life, these moments that will get students and parents thinking about the long – term view of their own lives and what’s possible because they’ve chosen biliteracy and will choose higher education…these moments keep me happy and humble, because these moments are very, very special. I cherish these moments – my source of strength. This work and this feedback is how I can present six different times in one day at two school districts 125 miles apart. It’s how I can serve over 700 people in a day, in two languages – because I truly LOVE this work with all my heart and soul.
After the event, we took these group photos with some of the dual immersion teachers in attendance. Then, I was treated to a yummy dinner at the Dust Bowl Brewing Co. Downtown, enjoying the company of teachers and delightful conversation.
I was particularly struck by the personal success story of a young man named Gustavo, a former TUSD student who’s now an administrator at CSU-Stanislaus located in Turlock. Young Latino educators are the diamonds in the rough – so few in numbers and so needed as educated role models for many boys and teens. In a day full of two-way inspiration, Gustavo’s story over dinner really grabbed my heart. I share with him the deep desire to inspire many more students like him to bet on higher education and win as bilingual professionals!
After hilarious and insightful conversation at Janet’s house with her two daughters (both fellow Girl Scout Cadettes like my daughters) who offered great tips for my girls’ Silver Award projects about to start, I crashed hard in my bed after midnight. I am so grateful for the hospitality and kindness offered to me by the friend of a friend and the wisdom of her assertive, confident teen daughters. I was truly inspired by their change-the-world attitude and examples of what they’ve already done!
What a blessing to serve the Turlock USD tonight. I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. I look forward to much more sharing and listening and future opportunities to serve this school district that’s truly leading the way in creating Future Bilingual Professionals who will succeed brilliantly, however they choose to participate in our 21st century globalized economy.