Photo by Art Latham
Cintia Aguilar moves animatedly about the room, discussing the lesson and asking questions of about 20 sleepy but attentive Latino students arranged in a semicircle of desks around her.
These kids, from several Randolph County public high schools, are engaged; they answer her questions and volunteer more information.
They’re learning leadership skills in a North Carolina Cooperative Extension Randolph County classroom on a Monday morning, attending the Third Annual Latino Youth Summit in Asheboro while the county’s public schools are closed for a holiday.
Teaching on a vacation day is challenging, but Aguilar — an educator, but not a public school teacher — is here because she likes challenges and recently acquired a new one: learning the nuances, needs and accomplishments of the numerous Latino programs that Cooperative Extension agents conduct statewide.
In July, Dr. Marshall Stewart, 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences Department head, named her departmental Latino affairs facilitator in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University.
Aguilar’s been preparing for this job for a long time, she believes, because due to events in her life, she appreciates working the frontiers between challenge and solution. Those frontiers weren’t physical barriers between countries, relating instead to personal growth, adaptability, family relationships, language, cultures and subcultures.
She traversed several such frontiers in her native Costa Rica on her way to a 1993 master’s degree in psychology from the University of Costa Rica (UCR). She has encountered several more since she came to the United States (and obtained dual citizenship) in 1995.
‘I’m an immigrant myself: I think doing this kind of work and citizenship are a privilege.’When Aguilar was seven in the small mountain-ringed Costa Rican city of Turrialba, her dad left home, and what was left of her nuclear family — she, her older sister and their mother — lived with her mom’s parents in a home already crowded with 11 people. And since her father’s later religious conversion contrasted with her mother’s family’s staunch conservative Catholicism, she learned there could be more than one approach to religion.
“My father’s parents were a little better off, and when I visited them I was treated very well,” Aguilar recalls. “If a child can’t grow up with both parents, an extended family is good. I grew up around my mother and father’s family, my grandparents and all my aunts and uncles. We always had adults around. We had some hardships, but I value that I was exposed to two sides. That kind of experience helps us to assess situations later in life and make better decisions.”
And she had a strong role model: her mother, who had finished only elementary school at the time she separated. “She went back to high school at age 27,” Aguilar says. “With help from her mother and father’s family, she went all the way to get her master’s in social work at a University of Costa Rica branch and retired recently after 20 years with the judicial system.”
Always an active student with excellent marks, Aguilar loved such activities as her school’s dance club and, later, running 50- and 100-meter races.
But as she made her way through school, she and four of her closest friends discovered another frontier. They applied for an international scholarship, which presented another challenge.
In the eleventh grade (1981-82), separated from friends and extended family, Aguilar attended high school in Hendersonville as an exchange student.
“When I first got the scholarship,” she says, “all I could think about was going to the U.S. But once here, I went from being popular in high school to not fitting in. This was my first experience with being different. The Prices, the family I stayed with, were very nice, but it was a hard experience. For a teenager, it’s terrible when you know you’re a good student, but you feel lost because you don’t speak the language. Teens can be mean, even if they don’t intend to. ”
The experience later helped Aguilar work with the Migrant Education Program (MEP) for the state Department of Public Instruction and for Cooperative Extension.
“I had learned such things as the value of having someone in a new place explain to you how things work,” she says. “That’s one of the things I’m now promoting: each student, no matter where they’re from, should have a mentor to walk them through the processes. This is also good for their families or anybody who moves to a new place. And after all, these may be kids who didn’t choose to be here; they were brought here.”
Aguilar later attended UCR on a full scholarship, majoring in psychology. “In Costa Rica,” she notes, “psychology is still part of the social sciences, as part of overall mental health. Here it’s more a medical science; that makes a big difference.”
Cintia Aguilar (center) enlists a student’s assistance as she teaches leadership skills at a Latino Youth Summit in Asheboro.
Photo by Art Latham
Photo by Art Latham
“Again,” Aguilar says, “I was exposed to two sides of life: couples who wanted to have a child but had infertility problems and children who wanted parents but, for different reasons, were separated from their biological ones.”
In 1995, after her marriage to an American, she relocated to Chocowinity, and the challenge became not only language but finding a job. East Carolina University recognized her UCR degree, but her lack of U.S. work experience hindered her job search.
Aguilar finally landed work at the Pitt County Mental Health Center, where she first experienced Latino children’s challenges in the U.S.
“The teachers said one boy was ‘too fidgety,’ ” she recalls. “I went to observe him. They have the kids form into circles for activities at that age, and when that included music, the youngster would start dancing. That’s a cultural thing. Most Latinos, when we hear music, we start dancing.”
In 1999, Aguilar was named MEP recruiter in Pitt County. In that capacity, she contacted schools, families and community agencies to enroll families in school and any other MEP-sponsored programs and helped build those programs.
In 2001, Aguilar moved to Raleigh as the N.C. MEP recruitment coordinator.
“The MEP’s goal,” she says, “is to ensure that all migrant students reach challenging academic standards and graduate with a high school diploma or complete a GED. That prepares them for responsible citizenship, further learning and a productive employment.”
And for more than six years, with an office on N.C. State’s campus, Aguilar did just that by leading MEP’s statewide identification and recruitment program and continuing to train MEP personnel and others statewide in how to identify and recruit migrants and much more.
In her new Latino affairs facilitator post, she provides technical assistance for the 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences Department in how to reach Latino audiences. Aguilar also supports Extension’s overall Latino Outreach Initiative efforts and projects and is forging community agency partnerships.
“Networking with existing community Latino organization is critical, as is learning about such organizations and informing them about Extension programs,” she says.
Now in an information-gathering phase, she’s visiting Extension’s various statewide Latino programs, meanwhile making job- and Latino culture-related issue presentations at such venues as Extension’s State Advisory Council.
“I strongly believe that in serving new audiences the key is to learn from each other,” Aguilar says. “Training is the door, but it’s not just about statistics or differences; it’s about how those statistics and differences impact our traditional programming and what the options are.”
She’s also working with Dr. Andrew Behnke in the 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences Department to develop the “Juntos para una Mejor Educación” (Together for a Better Education) Program, which helps parents and teens to work together to pursue higher education.
“One of my goals,” Aguilar says, “is to develop a program to promote multicultural 4-H clubs. This will be a great opportunity to integrate youth with different backgrounds in hopes that they can make an impact in their communities, which have been, in some cases, divided for political and economical reasons.”
And that’s why she’s out front of the class, team-teaching with Barbara Dunn Swanson, Randolph County 4-H youth development agent, and Roxanne Taylor, Latino Coalition of Randolph County chair, who also works for MEP in that county’s schools. The coalition, Extension and the College’s 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences Department co-sponsored the summit.
“I’ve always worked with people who had a disadvantage,” Aguilar says, “like children who were abandoned by their parents. Working with immigrants is somewhat the same thing because they’re treated as if they are ‘different.’ I’m an immigrant myself: I think doing this kind of work and citizenship are a privilege.”