Natalie’s Story: Projecting the Latino Voice from Classrooms to Boardrooms and Beyond
By: R.D. Leyva
While the Latino community is rich in diversity and backgrounds, we often share a common set of beliefs and values. The notion of giving back to your community is one such value that inspired Natalie Velasquez to leverage her skill sets and join the board of directors for a school in Greater Boston.
Natalie leads a successful career in finance, yet her belief in Latino students achieving at high levels and her own experiences in public education motivated her to apply for the first cohort of the Latino Board Fellowship. In 2017, she was matched to the board of directors of Boston Collegiate Charter School, where she sees tremendous value in expressing her voice at the decision-making table. As a public school student, she recognized diversity among her peers, but saw a need for it across faculty and administration. Now that she has joined the board of a local school, she is working towards establishing that parity of Latino students and role models.
In the third part of our Hispanic Heritage Month video series, we feature Natalie’s story.
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Read Natalie’s full interview to learn more.
Featured Latino Voice
Board Member, Boston Collegiate Charter School
How are you connected to the education system?
I feel connected to the education system because I went to public school my entire life and throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school it was very diverse. There were students from across the country, different parts of the world as well. As I grew older, went to college, and entered the workforce, the level of diversity has diminished. You don’t see that much variety over time. So, it makes you think. As you grow older, you only see certain type of people as you progress. So that made me think a lot about where I come from, what my parents did to make it to this country. They immigrated from Colombia many years ago. I know that they are not the first nor the last to make it to the American dream. There are far too many students today that are not getting the quality education that they deserve. They have a right to have an equal shot at being successful or at making their dreams a reality.
I think reflecting on where I came from, my experience over the last couple of years, growing up, and being in the position where I am today, again I’ve seen that diversity is not as prominent as it was before when I was growing up. And it just makes you think a little bit about where we are as a society, and of the amount of work that is yet to be done.
You talked about diversity growing up. Was there diversity in terms of school staff and teachers as well as among students?
The level of diversity I saw growing up was primarily in the classroom on the student level. There were a couple of teachers here and there that were Hispanic or African American, but it was a select few. As a kid you don’t really think about that. You have some teachers that are your cheerleaders and push you to the next level to continue improving but it’s harder to relate to a teacher if they aren’t necessarily familiar with or have the same background that you come from. I know that is an issue today. We have it across the country, where we don’t have enough teachers that are Latino or that are African American or that of Asian descent. So as we continue to get more diverse as a society, we need teachers that look like our students so that they continue to look up to them and relate to them. I think that adds another level of comfort, and potentially trust. They know where you’re coming from and what your culture and values are.
What drew you to Latinos for Education and what is the value that you see in being associated with the organization?
I found Latinos for Education about two years ago when it was just starting up. Honestly, it was perfect timing. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next in my career. I came from a Liberal Arts background and jumped into financial services. It’s been a great experience, I’ve held a number of different roles and all great from a professional development standpoint. But I’ve always felt like something was missing. I felt like I wasn’t tied in or connected to my community. Something about the education realm always attracted me so I’ve done a ton of volunteer work in classrooms or different nonprofits. I myself was alumna of a number of organizations and programs that help prepare you for college. They make sure your résumé is up to date, they help with the interview, your networking skills. So I felt like I received a lot from those organizations and the people that worked for them. I wanted to be in a position where I also felt like I was contributing. Even though I currently work outside of that space, I felt that I wanted to use my additional time to focus on that. So I was trying to figure out what to do and learned of Latinos for Education and the Board Fellows Program and it just made sense at that point.
Tell me about the Latino Board Fellowship and the biggest takeaway.
When I was going through the Latino Board Fellowship, the biggest takeaway or surprise was learning that we all have a voice and that we can all use it in a very different way. It’s really up to you as an individual to learn how to use that voice in a meaningful way. Everyone has a different form or style of communicating, saying things or doing things, but it’s really until you put it into practice that you learn how to execute that.
The Board training was a very valuable experience for me because it allowed me to connect with individuals that were similar to me and had an interest in the education sector but weren’t necessarily in it day to day. So we all had the same hesitation, but through that collaboration and joint learning experience we’re able to relate to one another and learn how to use that voice in a way that makes sense to you and the people around you.
One of the things I love is we’re able to give each other feedback and help with those fears or hesitation that we had.
What do you hope to accomplish as a Board member in the education system?
My overall mission by wanting to be involved in the education sector and being on Boards is to increase my sphere of influence across students who are going to public schools to prepare them to go to college and the workforce. To provide the tools they need to make and have a successful career. Education in general is the equal playing ground and it doesn’t matter where you come from, where you were born, who your parents are, your income level, it really shouldn’t matter if you are receiving a quality education and you have the right teachers and support system in place to help you visualize from where you are right now. That’s part of what’s missing in today’s environment. We have been doing it great in some areas, but not so great in other areas. We need to create some areas of consistency and bring the bar up a little bit to provide students with the quality education that they need.
Growing up, did you have Latino representation outside of the classroom? Why do you think that would be important to a student?
Growing up, I remember the classroom being very diverse but primarily from a student standpoint. The teachers were primarily of Caucasian descent, and there were the select few Latino or African American teachers that were there and you felt a certain extra sense of warmth with them because you knew that they were different like you were.
Having teachers that students can relate to, I think is extremely important in an environment that continues to become more diverse. But as our kids are growing, they’re not seeing the role models that they can relate to or that look like them.
Having diversity in general in the workplace, whether you are a teacher, banker or doctor. As a kid you don’t really think about oh my teacher is Caucasian, or my teacher is African American or she’s Latina. But as you continue to grow up, I think not having that diversity to look up to doesn’t allow you to think beyond, or visualize yourself to be in those positions. I faced that myself as I was growing up. I thought well what is it that I want to do when I grow up, and I couldn’t really think about somebody that looked like me that was in a position of power, that was in a leadership position, working on the executive team of a tech startup for example.
So whether you’re a teacher or someone in a totally different position, I think having that diversity and making it visible to our students from the very beginning is so important. I’m seeing it today. When we’re having the board meetings at Boston Collegiate, folks are saying these kids need someone to look up to. Folks who look like them to show them what is possible if they are able to follow through with their education and their grades, and their college application. So, I think it’s a cycle that we just need to get better at, and continue to develop our students into powerful leaders that can continue to show the youth beneath them that anything is possible.
What are some of the biggest barriers you notice Latino students face? What support do they need?
Having mentored a couple of Latino students, I think one of the biggest pieces that is missing is that we’re not preparing them for life and for the workforce. If they’re lucky enough to make it through middle school and high school. Once they move into college, it’s basically starting from scratch. If you’re parents haven’t attended college in the U.S., the college experience can be very overwhelming. You’re entire life has been structured in a way where you know that you have to pass from one grade to the next and you have to get good grades and you have extracurricular activities. But once you get to college, it’s a whole new playing ground. You have to pick a major that is somehow going to contribute to your career, or what you do professionally. There’s a bunch of clubs to get involved with, you have to learn how to manage your time- which is something that for the most part comes a little bit easier when you’re in a more structured environment. In addition to that, you have to figure out internships keeping in mind after graduation what do I want to do? So that’s why I think having role models who look like students- Latino role models or African American role models that look like students- is really helpful so they can truly see and pick and choose, or express an interest in a career path that sounds interesting. It generates conversation, it generates thought. Having mentored a couple of students in high school and applying to college, and even entering the workforce, I see that there are so many little things that school doesn’t teach you. It’s so helpful for them to be able to say hey, do you have a second I want to chat with you about how do I write this email, how do I tell my boss I want to take on more, or I don’t understand where my teammates are coming from. Having someone that you know understands you, that you can relate to and can be that sounding board for you I think is so important. The earlier that we can do that in a student’s life, the better. I remember having certain teachers in high school that I could go to and have a conversation about where could I see myself in a couple of years, or what do you think I can do. It’s people that can show interest in you, people that can help you understand and validate what your potential is because sometimes as a student growing up you don’t necessarily see that. I think that’s where the true value is in having a lot more representation across the board, and making it visible. As a professional now, I think we as a collective need to do a better job in doing that- going to the schools and being part of the organizations because people aren’t just going to reach out to us. It’s being proactive about it and making yourself visible.
When you were in college, did you have that guidance?
When I was in college, a lot of my experiences from an internship standpoint or just wanting to figure out what I wanted to do was a lot of trial and error. Being in a liberal arts institution, it would be more tough to say I’m interested in business or I’m interested in finance, because being in liberal arts was about having a more well-rounded perspective and think critically about different subject matters that you study. So I knew from the beginning that if I wanted to be in business, which I sort of knew, but I didn’t have anyone that represented that. So I expressed an interest in business, I found an organization that helped me attain my first internship, helped me with résumé review. It is through that process and internships that you start to meet people that see your potential, see what you’re capable of, and slowly push you along the way to continue growing, whether it’s at that company or somewhere else. They’re providing you with that tool set that you need to make it to that next level. Over the years you continue to meet people who push you, challenge you to continue to be better and pursue things to help you grow.
Why do you think it’s important to have an organization like Latinos for Education?
I think it’s important to have an organization like Latinos for Education simply because the organization itself represents the vision or the idea that education is that equal playing ground for Latinos. By bringing together a collective of Latino leaders, whether you are in education or not, you are creating this ecosystem that will help students and will help the overall state of education, or have some sort of influence or impact across the state of education in this country. I think it’s genius the fact that they focus on professionals outside education but also people in education and are creating this network of like-minded individuals that have a common interest and are coming up with different ideas to tackle this issue. Everybody has their ideas, thoughts, opinions, but when you bring all of that together for a common goal, I think that’s very powerful. There is so much more energy. By default, we’re creating this network of leaders that have a common goal to improve the state of education. We have more representation from a Latino standpoint because we have so many Latino students in school. It’s creating this ecosystem that’s bound to continue growing as we continue to reach more people and have a greater influence and impact across the board.