Acknowledging my privilege in education
How a shift in my early education changed my trajectory in life
I was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia. A small and charming town you might have heard of if you were into the whole #GameOfThrones fever (much of it was filmed there). It’s a truly remarkable and beautiful town (and I’m not just saying that, you can appreciate a little bit of its beauty in this picture by Spencer Davis).
Escaping the war
When I was very young, this fairytale town life of mine had to end abruptly. The Balkan War (basically Serbia being Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding and not wanting anyone to leave Yugoslavia) was beginning to begin, if that makes sense. My parents, who had met in college in Zagreb and migrated to Dubrovnik after they got married, were very worried. They packed their belongings (mostly books) and their two little children (I was 3 years old, my brother was a 10 month old baby) and went to the airport to wait for the plane that was going to take them to a better life, and avoid their children having to live through war.
The plane was late. After 3 hours, it was still late. My mother, the strongest woman I know, cried while they waited. My father, trying to comfort her, asked her if she wanted to go home and come back in 3 days, when the next Mexico-bound plane was programmed to fly out of Dubrovnik. My mother answered, with her characteristic iron will: “If I go back home, I’m not coming out again”. They waited close to 6 hours for the plane, which finally came and we all got in it. Afterwards, my mum received a letter from my Baka (grandmother) who told her that was the last plane to leave Dubrovnik’s airport, since they closed the airport the next day, and it was bombarded a few days later.
So we got to Mexico. No, not Mexico City, but a little town 40 miles south called Cuernavaca, where my grandparents (my dad’s parents) had settled. My mum was looking forward to living in Mexico City, with the excitement and buzz of the biggest city in the world, but my dad convinced her it was best to live in Cuernavaca. And so they did. My mum tried to find a job as a civil engineer, which was her passion, but it was hard without connections and not really knowing any Spanish (the amazing thing is she learned from Telenovelas, where years later her daughter would star). She finally landed a job at the Water Commission, where the work hours were very different from what she was used to. In Socialist Croatia, everyone got home at 4:00 p.m., and had time for friends, family and sports in the afternoon. In pseudo-capitalist Mexico, she usually got home at 1:00 or 2:00… a.m., working long hours and getting credit for her work stolen from her. She decided that was not the life she wanted, and she definitely wanted to see her children grow, so she took a job as a math teacher at Marymount Highschool, the catholic, bilingual (Spanish-English) and by far the best school in Cuernavaca (and I would argue in the whole of Mexico at that point). Marymount graduates go on to Ivy League colleges in the U.S. and their equivalents in Mexico and other parts of the world. Barriers of entry to Marymount as a student included a sophisticated testing round (SAT-like tests on math, English and Spanish), interviews and of course a price-point only a few could afford.
My mum was happy with her new job, in which as a good Croatian overachiever, she excelled to the point of becoming Marymount’s Principal years later. One of the awesome perks of being a teacher was receiving scholarships for your kids. And that’s where I come into the picture.
I was homeschooled until I was 6 years old. My parents taught me how to read and write. By the time I got into elementary school, I was way ahead of the other kids because I was very lucky to have very hands-on parents when it came to education. For elementary school, I got into the best public school in Cuernavaca: Atlamilitzli. I was fortunate to have great teachers and I always felt my classroom (A) was better than the other (B). Each grade had 2 classrooms with about 52 kids each. English lessons were introduced in 5th grade, and they would teach us how to buy fruits and vegetables. I have always had a way with languages (having learned Croatian first, and Spanish second, I think my ear was trained from a very early age), so I did great in English. I also had great teachers at home: my mum would make me read short stories in English and look up the words I did not understand in a dictionary. It was torture at the time, but I now think of those times and remember them very fondly.
When I got to the 6th grade, it was time to decide which middle school to chose. In Mexico, the system is like this:
Kindergarten - 3 years
Elementary - 6 years
Middle School - 3 years
High School - 3 years
I had the choice to go to Marymount, where my mum worked, or to Middle School #2 (that was literary the name, and it was the best public middle school in Cuernavaca). As unbelievable as it seems, I was torn on this decision. On the one hand, going to a school where most of my friends were going, that I knew I would fit in immediately and that was a good school. On the other, going to the best school where not only would I not know anyone, but I wouldn’t understand how to fit in, I wouldn’t be the best right off the bat and I would have to work harder than others. But I like challenges, so I went to Marymount. At the time, I didn’t understand how this decision would majorly shape my trajectory.
These are some things that Marymount gave me that would not only shape me as a person, but my trajectory in life:
Here’s a picture of Marymount Cuernavaca so you can get a better idea. Yup, Telenovelas were also shot here (now that I think about it, the Universe was very clear with me since the beginning—Telenovelas girl!).
Support systems work if well implemented.
To get accepted at Marymount, students had to go through 3 SAT-like tests: Spanish, English and Math. I excelled in Spanish and Math, but failed English miserably. Lucky for me, there was a summer “remedial” course I could take (along with another 20 kids who had also failed the English admissions test) so that we could get to the level we needed to understand our Biology or Math classes in English. Today, I have a slight accent in English that you can’t really place, and I owe that not only to my mum and her dictionary, but to the support system at Marymount, who made me realize that working continuously on something would bring me success. I am not sure I’d learn this if I had continued my education in the public school system.
Most teachers at Marymount were very involved in their student’s lives: they knew who their parents were (sometimes even where they lived), they knew their siblings and cousins and they took all of this into consideration when a kid was having trouble in school. Don’t get me wrong, it was a strict, very hard school to be in. But it was also where I learned that building a strong community could make your life happier and help you find your path (and stay on it). All throughout the year, there were events that made me feel like a part of something (Christmas posada, Father-Daughter dance, Arts Fair, Playback and many more). Seeing familiar faces and involved parents in all of these events made a safe space for me to thrive.
What is possible in life
People who graduated from Marymount went on to colleges in the United States (Yale, Harvard, Notre Dame, USC, UTEP, Northwestern, MIT, Penn, you name it). These accomplishments were shared both at graduation ceremonies and in the board next to the Principal’s office. Not only did I look up to these students, but to me it was a given that I could really do anything I set my mind up to. To me, this was a message that nothing was impossible. I did go on to apply and got accepted at Notre Dame, USC, Northwestern and Cornell (Yale was the only one who said no, but I’m not over with them yet). I decided to stay in Mexico to get my International Relations degree from ITAM, which of course I had to top off with a Business one because “why not? I’m good at math and everything is doable if you work hard enough”. You have to understand, making a choice like this for a girl who escaped war from a socialist country would otherwise be unthinkable.
Why am I writing this
This is not a piece to talk about how great I am, or how great Marymount Cuernavaca is. With this I aim to reflect how important education is in a person’s life. I am positive I would not be where I am if I continued my education in the public system. I am sure they would have given me a similar academic curriculum (in theory), but I don’t know that I’d have such involved teachers, such a great community and such a mentality. So it is fundamental that we think about what are we, as a society, valuing in education and how are we making it available and to whom.
Much has been said about how the “Factory-Model” education system needs to be disrupted, since it hasn’t fundamentally changed in 200 years. And I agree: education needs a reform not only to be available to everyone who wants it (in my case, if my mum hadn’t landed that job, I would definitely not have access to such privileged education), but to be relevant for the times that we are living in. What would happen if kids nowadays found real communities where they could thrive while learning how did the world get to this place and how can we change it for the better. And these communities acted not only as their support system, but as an affirmation and reminder that they can and will do anything they set their minds up to, if they work methodically and hard.
I truly believe education should be not only in the hands of the policy makers, or even the teachers, but in the hands of the entire community: parents, peers, heck even administrative staff and janitors (I remember knowing the name of the lady who cleaned the halls and of the people in accounting at Marymount because they were interested in us as much as we were interested in them). Education needs to be built in strong pillars like empathy and truth-seeking. But most of all, education needs to be designed in a way that we can all not only be a part of it, but be held accountable to it.
P.S. Because I consider education such a fundamental way of changing our lives, I’m part of the Board of Directors at STTE Foundation. I’m helping out here with all my skillset—including acting (yes, I’m an actress and you can find more about my work here). If you have questions of what STTE does, or you want to help in any way, drop me a line below; I’d be happy to connect!
P.S.2: A special thank you to Kristen Pallares and J.R. Rosillo for helping me review this article.