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Myriam Quiñones

This HCC Administrator Is Also a Role Model

When Myriam Quiñones was a student at Holyoke Community College in the early 90s, she would often sign up for a course, only to decide, sometimes after only a few minutes in the classroom — or even before it started — that she didn’t want any part of it.

Usually, it wasn’t the subject matter that would prompt her to drop a specific class and add another in the early days of a semester. Rather, it was how a class looked, felt, and sounded. As a single mother who had recently moved from Puerto Rico and thus had limited knowledge of English, Quiñones faced several challenges and knew she didn’t want to confront them alone.

“I often felt isolated and that I didn’t fit in,” she explained. “I would often just walk out of a class because I didn’t feel comfortable.”

Thus, she sought out a comfort zone, and when there wasn’t one, which was often the case — meaning a class with few Latinas or single mothers with whom she could relate to, and little by way of guidance from the school — she would create her own.

Indeed, she began organizing other Latino students to take classes together, study together — and face the many expected and unexpected challenges of pursuing a college degree together. She called it a “safety net.”

Today, 15 years later, Quiñones is still fashioning safety nets. Only now, she’s creating them for young students across a wide range of underrepresented groups. That’s her unofficial job description in her role as coordinator of the Multicultural Academic Services program, or MAS, which helps individuals find the pathways that will help them succeed in college.

Mas, as most with even a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish knows, means ‘more,’ and that’s what the program was designed to provide — more services, resources, and, perhaps most importantly, connections, she said, adding that many underrepresented students don’t have the wherewithal to create their own safety nets or comfort zones.

In her current capacity, Quiñones is more than administrator; she is a role model, and often uses her experiences from HCC and, later, at UMass, where she earned her bachelor’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and Psychology, as inspiration and proof that, with perseverance, students with specific challenges can overcome them.

And they don’t have to do it alone.

Class Action

Quiñones said she didn’t have any role models when she arrived in Holyoke from Puerto Rico in 1989.

She came with an 8-month-old baby and what she thought was a high school diploma, but later found out she was one credit shy of that mark and thus needed to attain a GED (General Educational Development) credentialing, which she attained through assistance from the New England Farmworkers Council. This would be the start of a long, usually difficult, educational journey, one that is ongoing, with Quiñones now studying for her master’s degree in Social Justice Education at UMass Amherst.

Quinones’s story is a good one for students involved in the MAS program to hear and remember, because it’s about struggle and eventual triumph, doubts and overcoming them, creating opportunities and taking full advantage of them.

Most of the early memories aren’t good ones, she told BusinessWest, noting that she started at HCC with English as a Second Language (ESL) courses before moving on to a liberal arts curriculum inspired in large part by a niece suffering from Down’s Syndrome.

“That was how I became intrigued with work in special education, and set out to be a special ed teacher,” she explained. “The college didn’t have that program so I decided to take education and psychology courses and essentially create my own program.”

There were many courses dropped in the early going, sometimes with others added, she said, noting that, even with the ESL courses behind her, she still felt uncomfortable in many classrooms.

“There were times when I would just walk out of a class during the add-drop period because I didn’t feel I would be comfortable speaking up in class, because of either the style of the teacher or the group in front of me,” she said, adding that she created her own group with the help of something called LISA, the Latino International Students Assoc., on the HCC campus, for which she now serves as an advisor.

She eventually became so comfortable and connected she didn’t want to leave the campus upon earning her associate’s degree (she stayed an additional semester, in fact), but eventually did to study early childhood education and psychology at UMass (the university’s special education program had been canceled due to an emerging trend toward inclusion of special needs students in regular classrooms).

After graduating, she took a job as a teacher with an early-intervention program — evaluating infants’ cognitive and social development skills — in large part because she was stymied in her efforts to get into the classroom by the MTEL (Mass. Teachers Evaluation Licensing) exam, then in its first year, which she failed to pass twice.

“I was very discouraged, I was ready to teach in the classroom, and knew I had the skills I needed to teach and the passion, especially for children with special needs,” she said. “That test crunched all my dreams of becoming a teacher. I thought the system was holding me back from what I wanted to do most.”

After working for two years with Valley Infant Development Services in Springfield, and then staying at home for a year after the birth of her second child, Quiñones came to HCC in 2001, working first as an ESL advisor before becoming acting director of that program.

By 2003, she was actually wearing three hats — ESL coordinator, director of the ROLES (Retention and Outreach for Latino Educational Success) program, and coordinator of the Leadership Network Program for male students of color.

In 2005, she was able to shed some of those hats and take on a new challenge, MAS, after the college was able to secure a three-year grant from the Kellogg Foundation to initiate the program.

Asked to sum up MAS, Quiñones said it is an ambitious program designed to take what she described as under-represented groups, including GED recipients, adult education students, ESL students, and others, and give them the tools needed for them to “survive on their own.”

“The program serves as a bridge to support students after they’re admitted,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to continually shape and strengthen that support network to ultimately improve graduation rates.

Speaking Their Language

Quiñones is quite familiar with statistics concerning the Hispanic population and education, and quotes them often. Just over half (58%) of Hispanics 18 and over have a high school diploma, she said, and only 10.3% of those in this group have earned a bachelor’s degree.

There are several reasons why, she continued, including the language barrier, which is a significant hurdle, one not generally appreciated by those who don’t face it, and also a lack of both role models and a clear understanding of the importance of education.

MAS was created to address all of this, she said, adding that its basic mission statement is to not merely inspire Hispanics and other underserved populations to consider and then enter college — but to provide the support system that will keep them in school.

Elaborating, she said the program is designed to help students take ownership of their educational and career goals, something that can be difficult when the individuals in question are often the first in their families to attend college.

Such ownership is acquired through knowledge, tools (a word Quiñones would come back to often), and connections, and MAS was created to provide all three.

Sometimes, students need help with simply understanding a college catalog, she explained, and choosing courses in the right sequence to support their majors. Other forms of support include setting students up with tutors, learning coaches, and, if needed, bilingual/bicultural counseling.

In some cases, students need help taking a career goal and charting a course for it, she said, noting one example of a woman interested in cosmetology, whom she will steer toward Springfield Technical Community College and its program in that field.

Overall, Quiñones said students who come to the MAS program often need more than help sequencing courses and finding tutors. Often, they require doses of inspiration and encouragement that will see them over or through the hurdles in front of them and keep them from becoming statistics — specifically concerning those who don’t graduate from HCC or any other school.

And this is when Quiñones summons her own experiences. They help make a case for education in general, and for trying to persevere when times get tough.
“I tell them where I came from, because that creates a connection between their story and mine,” she said, referring specifically to young single mothers. “That helps create a trust between the student and myself, and provides some of the tools and ideas they need to handle certain situations.

“When students are beginning in the ESL program they often don’t see themselves advancing,” she continued. “When students are taking developmental English and math, they feel like they’re wasting their time. I try to convince them they’re not wasting their time and that it’s not their fault they come from schools that didn’t prepare them for that kind of math and English. I show them my transcript and say, ‘you’re not the only one who has gone through this.”

As for her own professional goals, Quiñones said her graduate degree in Social Justice Education — still a few years away because she’s pursuing it on a part-time basis — should help her advance her career in education. Eventually, she would like to pursue her doctorate in Education and advance to other administrative positions.

For the time being, though, her focus is on her master’s and working with others at HCC to make the MAS program successful.

Degrees of Progress

When asked how and when she would know if MAS was working as designed, Quiñones said there will quantitative measures, especially graduation rates for students involved in the initiative, with which to gauge its success.

For now, though, there are more qualitative indicators, such as the stories she hears from and about students, as well as a broad sense of optimism that she detects among those she assists.

“Optimism has brought me to where am I today,” she said. “It will help these students get to where they want to go.”

Optimism, and a good comfort zone.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]