“There was prejudice… a great deal of prejudice. I came from the Dominican Republic with very strong self-esteem, and being placed in remedial courses in the US, I felt I was being treated as someone from a different culture and not very smart.”
I came to New York City and I did not speak English. In my country, they claimed they were teaching us some English, but it was useless here. I really had trouble pulling out words that I had learned in my country in class because it was not conversational English. So I just dedicated myself to learning the language and the culture giving where I was living. I really learned everything by myself; my mother didn’t teach me anything. My mother had a third grade education, and to this day, she speaks a little bit of English, but it is not even enough to have a conversation with someone; she knows how to ask questions to get what she needs, but if she gets an elaborate answer, she’ll lose the train of information—she won’t even understand it.
I received a public education in New York City at PS 77, which was a middle school (high school was 10th, 11th and 12th grades). At the time, there wasn’t substantial funding being funneled to schools with foreigners. There weren’t any English as a Second Language Programs; there wasn’t even special ed, from all that I remember. There were really no programs that could help me get up to speed with the language. I was up to speed with the academics—I had done algebra and geometry already, the required courses in ninth grade in the Dominican Republic, but not knowing the language, it was difficult for me to explain all of that. And I didn’t know what former basic testing they were doing. They must have done some type of basic testing to determine my placement. So we were all put into what they called “remedial classes.” I remember I saw one of the classes I was being assigned to and asked what the abbreviation meant (I think it was an R) and they told me it was for “remedial.” That hit my self-esteem hard.
I had completed the first year of high school in my country, and in my high school in my country, you begin getting tracked into college, so that last year of high school is really preparatory for college. So I was already choosing the sciences with the plan to go to medical school. And I was doing very well in algebra; I was doing very well in the sciences. Then I land in New York City, where I am treated as a remedial student who doesn’t know a thing. And in fact, I was put back in the 9th grade. I had completed 9th grade quite well in my country—I had completed it with honors—and now in this country, I am put in remedial 9th grade, and treated as dumb. There was prejudice; there was a great deal of prejudice. I came from the Dominican Republic with very strong self-esteem, and being placed in remedial courses in the US, I felt I was being treated as someone from a different culture and not very smart, and I was considered very smart in my high school, very sharp, and really having it together. I was now in an environment where I am now being labeled in a way that is limiting and dumbing me down. I felt very dumped down those first couple years, which in some ways, helped me pick up the language. I had to, in some ways, apply myself as best as I could to learn the language. The other students who were of Spanish heritage from my school were from Cuba. They had come out of the whole exodus that happened between 1959 and 1961. They were struggling in similar ways, and I don’t know how well-received they were. There were very few Dominicans—maybe three or four of us—and six Cubans.
I pursued medicine and was discouraged very strongly. I was discouraged because I didn’t speak the language. I was discouraged because, you know there weren’t mechanisms for kids like myself; there weren’t mechanisms in place to guide us. The systems that were in place were to track us into technical jobs. I was being told that I couldn’t become a doctor because I wasn’t able to speak the language adequately and that I couldn’t do well on the exams, and it was frustrating to me because I didn’t believe it. But there was nothing else I could resort to. It wasn’t the age of computers. I didn’t know how to research or look up opportunities for foreigners, so I relied on the guidance counselors to tell me.
I did meet up with some really good mentors. I already had an ability to establish mentoring relationships with adults because I was doing that in Cotui as a young girl—I called it “creating trusting relationships.” In high school, I was fortunate enough to meet adults who would mentor me. There was a lot going on in New York City in the 60s, with drugs and crime, and certainly in my high school. I had no interest in any of that—I was very focused on getting an education. I wanted to go into medicine; I still had wishes of the things I wanted to accomplish, so I think that the mentoring adults, the teachers, saw that in me, and brought me under their wings. That made all the difference.
There was this one teacher who saw my interest in health care. At about age sixteen, after I had been in the country for a year and a half, she connected me with St. Luke’s Hospital at Columbia University and took me there. There, I met with a chief dietician. This teacher thought I would be very good at the field of diet and nutrition and she connected me with them. She was also my home economics teacher, so I’m sure that was why she was thinking nutrition. (That was a big thing for girls in New York City public schools—home economics—to learn how to cook and to learn how to do things.) For me, I was willing to try anything.
But with the skills that I had, I found ways to explore further. So while I was there, I worked in the kitchen washing dishes, but very quickly, my supervisors saw my abilities, and they would ask me to be in charge of menus, filling out menus for the patients; I got to be on the floors to see the patients and be in a hospital environment. From there, the director of the department saw my very strong secretarial skills and I asked me to be his secretary. (I was taking steno; I was taking typing—I typed like a madwoman; I still type like a madwoman.) I had been developing all those skills in high school because they were trying to track me into receiving a commercial diploma. For me, I was learning skills I knew would last, that I knew I could use. And so I very quickly jumped to a whole different level. I got to know the hospital even better, and out of that, applied to nursing school.
I worked at the hospital between 16 and 18 years old. I was working at the hospital part-time during the school year and full-time every summer until graduated high school and started nursing school in the fall of 1968. When I finished high school, I was proficient with the language, and yet there are all kinds of judgments that are still being made about my ability to succeed in the sciences, or succeed in what I was interested in. The high school was aiming me in the direction of technical programs and secretarial programs, so I didn’t know how much time they were taking to see my aptitude, because I don’t remember taking strong aptitude tests to determine what I was placed in. I completed all the requirements for a “commercial high school diploma”—it was in high school, but the concentration was commercial. I don’t know what that meant besides they wanted me to be a secretary. During my high school during graduation, I was called to the front and given an award called the B’nai B’rith Award. I don’t remember what that award was for, but it may have been for “accomplished student,” or “accomplished foreign student.” By graduation from high school, it was clear that I was going into the sciences, but in a different direction than I had imagined and had anticipated.
When I applied to nursing school, there was a big rave about associate degree programs, so I thought, “oh that’s a quick way to start working and have a full-time job.”And at that point, my mother was saying things like “if you want to fund yourself through college”—because she was hearing me talk about college, and she didn’t know what it all quite meant—“I think you better start working, get yourself a full-time job.” She wasn’t really supportive of the idea of me going to college, and I didn’t really listen to her; I just went to financial aid and got loans, and started the associate’s degree program for nursing. Again, I was fascinated by biology, microbiology, anatomy and physiology—all of the sciences. I had very high grades in all the sciences and I still remember so many things from those classes.
I graduated in 1970 from the two-year program, but somehow didn’t continuing pursuing my interest in medicine; some of it might have been resignation that the system wasn’t set up for somebody like me. I had my struggles as a teenager in a different culture, so by the time I graduated from nursing school, I was determined to go back to my country. It had only been in the US five and half years.