Recently I asked the following questions of GlobalEd Leadership’s Distinguished Fellow Professor María Luisa González…
First, tell us a little about yourself.
First and foremost, I am a child of the borderlands. I come from long standing families that resided on the border before the first Europeans came to this area and before the land was fought over by different countries. I will begin by adding some background because I feel that in most of our lives our background helps explain who we are and why we do what we do. As others before me I need to provide a brief background on both parents–thus offering some of the recognition they deserve.
My grandmother had lost all her wealth during the Mexican Revolution and like many other immigrants who are also border people my grandparents owned property on both sides of the border. Luckily for her and her seven offspring they survived financial challenges and all were raised in the US and attended schools there. By the time my father and his two brothers were of college age there was no money to send three sons to US universities. Instead they attended the best university in Mexico–the UNAM (the national university in Mexico City). Two brothers studied law as their father had. My father chose another profession—medicine–and his was a tougher road to follow since he had to acquire new knowledge along with learning Spanish that he hardly understood well academically. Thus, he insisted that his children learn a minimum of three languages and never face the discrimination he faced.
He completed his training where he was supervised and mentored by doctors trained in the US and Europe. His social service as they call it in Mexico was spent caring for indigent patients. When it was time to return to the US he was recruited by one of the top hospitals in the US at the time—the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital–that provided services to the richest people in show business. He was the only Mexican and the only person of color to ever ascend to Chief Resident status there. His preparation in a country south of the border had prepared him to serve the rich. When he passed the Boards, he was promised partnerships in some of the most prestigious medical practices.
On the other hand, my mother had supported my father and me through his medical internship and residency in California. She ascended the ranks of Civil Service and had the highest security clearance of women in her area. She was in charge of security for all the plans and documents related to the first atomic submarine built—the Nautilus. She had lost both parents at the age of nine but loved school. She was unable to complete high school as she had to help provide for her younger brothers and sisters. Later, she went to live in Chihuahua City Mexico with an aunt who could help send my Mother and her oldest sister to a well-respected bilingual secretarial school (English and Spanish). Thus, Mom who had attended schools in the US was also prepared to work in the different American and British companies that existed at the time in Mexico. This schooling proved transcendent in her finding employment in the US after she and Dad married.
When the time came to decide whether to stay in Los Angeles and follow a lucrative medical career there, my Father could not accept that way of life. He felt his only choice was to return to the border—where he knew he could make a difference. He felt he had a gift as an MD and an obligation to care for those who normally could not access medical care. Both parents were never centered around money. Their lives’ values consisted of making an impact by giving and helping others.
Thus, I was their first born (eventually there were four children) living in Hollywood, California, USA. We lived there until I was about 4 years old and then we returned to the border. I grew up in a small part of an over 4,000-mile stretch of border between Mexico and the US. This incredible setting of living on two sides of a bridge that separated two countries offered me numerous advantages that one receives when one lives a bifurcated life. There was a basic familial expectation—we had to master two languages, two cultures, two histories, and that we be able to “maneuver” in two distinct settings. Socially we were expected to make transitions that were immediate. Two cities separated by a bridge where one had to remember to change hours on a clock or watch because we were also separated by two different time zones. We also had to change currency in our mind if we were to buy anything. We switched languages and had to learn to function on immediacy. There was never a choice it was our way of life. I crossed the border twice every school day from first grade through graduation from high school. I saw poverty in one country on a daily basis and less poverty in the other. I would readily live in a third world country and spend time in an industrial nation by crossing an international bridge.
This incredible setting prepared me to accept those and that which is different from my own experience. I see this as part of a border dynamic. I cannot fathom living in a monocultural setting. I expect to see multicultural and multilingual humans around me. Thus, I enjoy traveling and living along the border.
Over your career as a professor of educational leadership and as an administrator in higher education you have written and spoken about many issues of social justice. Why did you choose these areas?
I would like to clarify that I came to the professoriate with extensive experience in the public schools and the different settings presented. I worked in teaching, supervisory, and principalship positions. I worked in schools serving the military, a country club school, rural, barrio, and inner-city populations. I worked with undocumented immigrants whose parents worked two to three jobs to make a living. My life on the border prepared me well for all of these positions. While I saw an overabundance of resources at the country club school I understood that this could be a reality for all the other schools with limited resources to attain. Thus, it was instrumental in my fight for social justice in education. Thus, the university classroom was a springboard to make our students aware of their responsibilities relative to providing the best educational experience for all children– regardless of their citizenship or socio-economic status. I cannot think of any other area of education that I would choose to work in. I have also worked in the ramifications of language learning and the impact on special education services. They are a part of my life force. They are my raison d’etre.
What have been a few milestones in your career?
It seems that I have followed my parents’ trajectory into breaking new ground in their own jobs. When I graduated from my doctoral program, from a university located in a border setting with a predominately Hispanic population, I was the first Hispanic woman to receive a doctorate from that program.
I was recruited several years later when I served as a principal with the Dallas Independent District to apply for a faculty position at my alma mater. Once again, I returned to be a “first” –I was hired and at the time I was the first Latina at the university hired in a tenure track line.
I ended up serving as the first female Hispanic department chair–a position which I held for ten years. The department grew in size, in color, and in gender. We also were able to develop programs that became recognized nationally. For several years I held the highest administrative academic position at that university.
I also served the University Council of Educational Administration as the first Latina president during a time where there were very few professors of color participating. In fact, we could count those professors of color on the fingers of both hands. This has changed dramatically over the years and I am now proud to say that we are making strides in reaching equity.
In all of the aforementioned positions I have held in academia I have faced many challenges. However, it did help to listen to my parents as they shared their struggles with discrimination during the 50’s. I just felt that 40 years later things would have changed, sadly not. While I met and continue to meet individuals who will see women or people of color and immediately think that we are undeserving. Unfortunately for those who see differences as deficits their world will continue to be so limited. I am fortunate to have encountered in my lifetime more caring and engaged individuals than those who are not.
Tell us about some of the projects that have been particularly important to you and why.
My major thrust in grant writing was to develop leaders to serve successfully in educational border settings and with immigrant populations. I will mention only a couple of these.
The first major grant project was born out of a need to develop educational leaders who could understand PK-20 educational border issues and work on strengthening ties on both sides of the border. The funding came from a major foundation in the US and was for a $12 to $14 million-dollar amount. It was a doctoral program in conjunction with Arizona State University and the University of California at Riverside. Other institutions joined in this collaborative effort to prepare doctoral students to develop US educational leaders to become leaders on both sides of the border. The initial plan was to have students conduct residencies on both sides of the border in political settings. They were also to take coursework from the different disciplines but plans changed. The grant paid for multiple students across the United States and all of were of Mexican/Hispanic descent. All students completed their degrees and chose to work in public school systems or university settings. The group became extensive as different universities along the border US-Mexico states joined the program.
The other grant that I will mention was in conjunction with two border educational systems on the US side. The focus was to study the issues of Hispanic students attending schools in the United States and building higher expectations among the parents of these children. Thus, the development was for principals who could identify curricular programs with their teachers to reach these children who were immigrant students. At the beginning of the program there were reluctant school administrators who refused to engage with the program. They felt that the focus on Hispanic children and their needs was not what was needed. With the use of data, they understood they could no longer neglect the needs of the majority of the students in their districts. The students obtained a master’s degree and certification with a special emphasis on serving linguistically and culturally different students. All students with the exception of one who chose not to leave the classroom are serving as school principals or central office administrators.
Were you involved in education policy at the state or national levels?
I was fortunate to be involved at both political levels. At the state level, I testified each year at the different legislatures and the different educational committees. I spent considerable time trying to make legislators aware of border education. I had contact with several of them and invited them to participate in school visits where my graduate students served to make clear issues that were impacting border schools and in which politicians could help out.
At the national level, I supported the work of an individual who spearheaded the rights for homeless children and runaway youth. I served as principal in a school in Dallas that served children from homeless shelters and remained in contact with any group who fought for the rights of these children. I had the honor of reading and reacting to the McKinney Act for Homeless Children. Our school received national congressional recognition for its work with homeless children.
Who were some of your role models and how did they influence you?
I have been very fortunate to find mentors who are also heroes at every stage of my career. I just completed a chapter on six educators who fought for bilingual education in this state. Each of them became a personal friend but they were instrumental in my learning to become a voice and act for the rights of those who cannot.
I have mentioned the mentorship I received from my parents as being a great gift. I also found colleagues when I was in Pk-12 education with whom I collaborated to improve our teaching. I have been lucky in finding individuals who know so much more than I do. Even in my students from grade school several followed a teaching career. Another is running for much contested state senatorial office and has laid out a socially just platform. Students offer us so much regardless of age.
In the Academy, I met a woman who has remained my mentor until now. She was the first Latina professor whom I met at a conference and has received every award in our field. She is truly an incredible individual and scholar. We first need to be human then we can celebrate our contributions to the academy. She remains intact in both worlds.
There are also a group of my doctoral students whom I respect greatly. One will be the third woman to be president of UCEA. I greatly admire her work with her advisees. She is exemplary as a professor and a woman. Another is a professor serving at a HBCU where he is focused on social justice and building community with those who feel disenfranchised. There are several as part of a group of the “younger generation of professors” who are beginning their careers in academia. While I try to be supportive and accessible to them I learn more from them than they from me.
The list of colleagues is so plentiful that it enriches my life. I am glad that I spent the number of years I did in academia and that there continue to be multiple opportunities for further involvement especially now given the political outlook.