When Students Empower Other Students

When Students Empower Other StudentsGreat things happen when no one is looking.

Or at least, where the light of most media doesn’t shine. In Los Angeles, these past few days, a group of current college students, recent college grads, and teacher credential students visited many local high schools to talk about college.

These were not just any students. Most were first generation Latino college goers and graduates. A unique breed in short supply.

Having graduated from many of the same high schools they were now visiting, these students were not merely providing valuable information on what is needed to make it to college but, more importantly, they were offering empowerment. A sense of, “If I did it, so can you, and here’s how.”

Besides their strong need to give back to their communities, these college students have something else in common – their professor, Rebecca Joseph, PhD, a full time Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at California State University Los Angeles (CSULA) and the founder of, a partner of my organization, Latinos in College.

“When we asked high schoolers how many of them knew people who had gone to college, only about 5% raised their hands,” shares Dr. Joseph with a mix of awe and frustration. Hence the need for more college students (and professionals) to visit schools and routinely share their personal stories of success.

Dr. Joseph’s team has been implementing Latinos in College workshops (supported by our sponsor Bedoyecta) in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with the help of teachers who host one or two of our Ambassadors in their class for a whole day. But these aren’t your grandmother’s workshops.

Because the facilitators and the audience are close in age and share very similar life experiences, there’s an unusual openness and willingness to discuss difficult topics such as strategies to afford college when your family depends on your income or how to deal with depression when you are the only undocumented sibling in your family.

It hasn’t only been traditional students facilitating the program either. Arlene Acosta is a forty-something-year-old mom of 8 (three of whom are already in college,) first generation college goer who is now a Junior at CSULA. And also an entire family, mom and four kids, became a role model for parents and students alike. They wanted to encourage others to make higher education a priority. “The mother only has a third or fourth grade education,” explains Dr. Joseph. “Three of her kids are in college and the fourth one, the oldest son, has been very depressed because he’s undocumented and he can’t receive any financial aid. They came out to speak at a parent workshop to show that even when you live in the projects and are very poor, you can still go to college.”

Granted, there are a lot more things we can do as a society to continue providing pathways to higher education for all students, starting by passing the Dream Act once and for all. Next, we need to increase rather than cut college counseling in schools as our economy desperately needs a college educated workforce. But the empowerment that comes from close-aged peers and families who’ve done what many Hispanic students once deemed impossible – priceless.

This article was originally published on Fox News Latino. 


We are all Dreamers

We are all DreamersThe Dreamers have been waiting for good news for a very long time. And although I’m happy that something has been done, Obama’s announcement to defer for two years the deportation of young people brought to the country as children is obviously politically driven.

We all know that he had the chance to make this decision a year or two ago, when he ignored calls to take action. But the fact that immigration has remained on the forefront of the political debate, to the point that Time magazine’s new cover story this week is about undocumented immigrants, is probably one of the most hopeful things that could happen.

Time had Jose Antonio Vargas, the Philippine-born journalist who came out as undocumented in a New York Times essay last year, write a story that is at the same time personal and very informative for millions of Americans who don’t really know how complex the immigration system is in this country.

I am moved by the courage Vargas and many other Dreamers demonstrate by outing themselves publicly. By confronting their demons and demanding that something be done to fix this broken system. By the kinds of questions Vargas has faced during the last year after he came out. “Why don’t you make yourself legal?” As if it were that easy!

For me too, this is personal. Over twenty years ago, I came to this country with a tourist visa and soon after I accepted a job with a company that processed an H1-B work permit for me.

A year later I traveled to Argentina to get my change of status stamped on my passport, a routine procedure, and the Chief of the Visa department at the American Consulate decided to cancel my tourist visa because I had decided to change my status.

In her eyes that meant I might want to stay in the U.S. This left my husband and me, (both in our early twenties) in limbo. We had a house, a car, my job in New York; and yet we were no longer allowed into the country.

What were we to do? We fought through all legal means, and eventually decided we had to come back no matter what it took. I loved my job and the beginnings of my life in the U.S.

Needless to say, it was a long, difficult, traumatic journey that started in Toronto and ended up in Tijuana where we met up with a Coyote – who a few years later was murdered – who guided us across the border at 3:00 o’clock on Mother’s Day one Sunday in May.

We were undocumented for three years in this country trying to figure out how to legalize our status.

During what were the most destabilizing years of my life, we bought an almost bankrupt company and made it successful, we paid taxes, and we spent many, many sleepless nights in fear for our future.

Until one day, our lawyer told us about the Diversity Lottery – a green card lottery designed to provide professional people who were in the country illegally with a path to legalization. There were 40,000 visas, 16,000 of which were reserved for the Irish, so only 24,000 were to be divided among dozens of countries. (Argentina was the only Spanish speaking country eligible that year.)

You were able to send as many applications as you wanted. My husband and I sent 200 each. Immigration received 17 million letters and I got one of those 24,000 visas. That’s how I got my green card, and five years later to the date I applied for my citizenship.

So you see, I know how it feels to have butterflies in your stomach all day long. Every time you get in your car and you fear you might get pulled over. Every time you see a cop driving behind you.

That’s why I understand why there’s a move to publicly acknowledge being undocumented. It’s liberating; it lets you breathe. It helps others understand why you act in certain ways, and hopefully it elicits their empathy and help.

Vargas is right when he says that if there are 12 million undocumented people in this country and each one is supported by 5 or 10 people who are American citizens, this is a problem that affects every single one of us.

Perhaps by putting a face to the stories, by explaining to our neighbors how complicated the process is to attain legal status, by sharing what all of us contribute to America’s economy, culture, and society while undocumented we might help get general support for immigration reform. Something that we need to do to honor the fundamental spirit of America and not for political gain.

This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.

Starting a New Year’s Gratitude List

Starting a New Year's Gratitude ListThe envelope had a return address I didn’t recognize. When I opened it, I found an uncashed $300 check that I had issued two months ago. It was being returned with a post-it that read, “I wish you luck with the good work you’re doing with Latinos in College (LIC).”

My jaw dropped. The note was from Russ Haven, an attorney in Albany who my cousin Geoff Boehm (who’s been working pro-bono for LIC) had asked for help with the process of incorporating LIC as a not-for-profit organization. I was so moved by his act of kindness that, right after I sent him a big thank-you note, I made a mental list of the many small and big gestures of this kind that I had encountered during the past year.

There were many, in both my private and professional lives. From an anonymous nomination for an award, to warm introductions to high-profile connections, to a compliment at the right time, to flowers left by my door by a grateful friend.
From students and professionals who lent their time and energy to my causes, to invitations to exciting concerts and surprise tickets to the hardest-to-get Broadway shows. From friends who’ll do anything for me even before I ask, to strangers who amplify my message through their social media support. Many powerful new partnerships and new opportunities.

I’m sure you received similar gifts during 2011, but you may have been too busy keeping all the balls in the air to stop and thank the people who made your days more joyful or who made a difficult task seem easy. So I propose that, rather than continuing with the tradition of creating a silly New Year’s resolutions’ list, (which we all know nobody remembers come February), we create a Gratitude list. If you start a fresh list on January 1 and record every act of kindness big or small that someone does for you throughout the year, then next December you will have a wonderful list of people to thank with a card, a phone call or a gift.

Life being a two way street, this exercise helped me reflect about my own behavior toward others. Did I do enough? Did I help everyone within my possibilities? Did I turn a blind eye to someone who I could have lent a hand to? And, although inevitably there’s a limit to how many people each one of us can help, these questions will keep me (and you, if you chose to join me) on my toes, watching out for opportunities.

Generosity is the grease that makes the world go round. We should practice it daily and recognize when others are generous with us. So to all of you who have brought joy to my life and work in 2012, “Thank you.”

This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.

School Mass Shooting: How to Cope

School Mass Shooting: How to CopeIn the aftermath of the second most deadly school shooting in U.S. history in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, we are all left with many more questions than answers. The images of devastated parents and scared kids force us to concoct explanations for our children in an attempt to make sense of an unthinkable act committed by a mentally-ill young man. The truth is that there is absolutely no good explanation. No silver lining. Not even the faithful can come up with a convincing reason why this happened.

There’s no bigger loss than the loss of a child, so, understandably, parents all over the country wonder: Isn’t school supposed to be a safe haven, a place where you drop off your kids every morning assuming that they will be okay? Isn’t Newtown, Connecticut, a bucolic town with great schools, the kind of town people move to so their kids can receive a top notch education? But if a massacre of this proportion can take place in picturesque, quiet, Newtown, couldn’t it happen in my own town too?

Yes, it is possible. Mental health issues and easy access to automatic weapons aren’t circumscribed to a specific geographic area or social class. Until we pass a ban on automatic weapons and establish better measures to provide a safety net to the mentally unstable, this kind of event will continue to take place. The only consolation for parents might come from looking at the probability of this happening to their kids.

When I heard about the shooting I was at a conference in Manhattan. As I shared the news, one of my colleagues, Lisa Levey, a work-life consultant with a background in economics, said, “Right now, this is a time to reflect on how we deal with mental health in this country. But the only way to keep on living normally is to realize that the mathematical probability of this happening in your child’s school is close to zero.”

That’s right. According to the National Center for Health Statistics you’re much more likely to die in a car accident (1 in 100) than you are to die in a plane crash (1 in 20,000). Yet, the number of people who fear flying is much greater than those who fear riding in a car. (I suspect that’s largely because of how much more unusual and spectacular a plane crash is and how much media coverage it receives. And also, because car crashes are so probable that if you were to think about them all the time you wouldn’t leave your home.)

Likewise, the probability of a young person being injured or killed in a massacre like the one in Connecticut is way smaller (in 2012 there’s been a total of 32 school-shooting-related deaths including the ones in Newtown) than the probability of them dying in an accident (1,613 cases in children 5-14 in 2011) Yet we don’t keep kids locked inside to avoid them being run over by a car. In other words, despite what just transpired in Connecticut, our schools are still pretty safe places.

So let’s mourn the 27 people killed by an evil young man who I refuse to name in this article to deny him any recognition. Let’s allow our children to express their fears and let them know that some horrible acts cannot be explained other than by the fact that, as in this case, they were committed by a very sick person. And as we try to help our kids process this shocking event, and without minimizing what happened, let’s also make sure they understand that what is possible and what is probable are two very different things. As hard as it is to swallow the reality of what happened, we might get some peace in grasping this concept ourselves.

This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.

Mariela Dabbah: The Red Shoe Movement

Mariela DabbahWhen Nora Bulnes, Publisher of Selecta Magazine—a 30-year old, well-known, glossy South Florida magazine—grabbed the microphone at the recent launch of my book, Poder de Mujerat Neiman Marcus Bal Harbor, the high profile attendees were in tears. This indisputable leader in the Miami community talked about an experience all too common among women: being the target of envious peers of the same gender. “How many of you know that I arrived in this country with $5 and a young daughter? Or how tough it was at the beginning? Throughout my life, many women envied the shoes I bought, but where were they when I needed help?” asked this powerful woman who is a frequent guest of Donald Trump and whose magazine covers the life of the rich and famous.

My new book came out in March for Women’s History Month with a picture of red stilettos on the cover to signify that women can achieve their goals with their own feminine style. Concurrently, I launched the Red Shoes Movement inviting women to wear red shoes to work as a way to show their commitment to support other women. I wish there were no need for this kind of initiative, but unfortunately, just as Mrs. Bulnes’ story demonstrated the day of the event, this is not a new problem and it hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years.

Given the multitude of obstacles that women face in gaining income parity and equal access to powerful networks in the workplace, it is sad to see our own gender-mates adding fuel to the fire. Why do women tend to be harder on each other than men are? Many theories address this issue. Some point to the evolutionary advantage of jealousy, others to the internalization of messages of oppression, sexism, and misogyny that permeate cultures everywhere.

There’s probably more than one way to explain this phenomenon, yet we have outgrown many traits that were useful at some point thousands of years ago and that no longer serve us well. What will it take for more women to realize that helping other women grow professionally is a key aspect of our survival in today’s workplace? Only when women help other women reach their full potential will we really move the needle. There will be more women executives. More woman-owned companies will have access to capital to take their businesses to the next level. And there will be a woman President of the United States.

At the Neiman Marcus cocktail party, I had the privilege to be on the receiving end of this empowering behavior. A group of strong women such as Nora Bulnes, Remedios Días Oliver, founder and CEO of All American Containers, Inc, and Beatriz Parga, renowned journalist and author of La Maestra y el Nobel (soon to become a movie,) put their power behind me. The result: not only did I get a chance to share my book and vision with an influential audience, but the guests at the event got to connect with each other. Everyone’s network got stronger and larger.  Therefore, everyone’s opportunities multiplied.

I’m encouraging women to share their stories of success while wearing their Red Shoes to work as a way to create a positive movement to inspire more of us to continue to open doors for each other. Eventually, the sheer force of peer pressure will make it a norm for women to wear red stilettos to walk side by side rather than to step over each other.

Mariela Dabbah’s new book Poder de Mujer was just released by Penguin. She’s a leadership consultant for corporations and organizations, an award winning author and renown public speaker. She’s the founder and CEO of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization that helps students and families find everything they need to succeed in college.  

Photo: Victor Villanueva @ Flickr

Mariela Dabbah’s latest book Poder de Mujer will be out in English April 2013 by Penguin. She’s the founder and CEO of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women’s careers.

This article was originally published on Fox News Latino.