In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ve interviewed JAWA CEO & President Natalie Vega O’Neil on her roots, her career journey, and the role she feels Hispanic leaders play in the future of the education industry.
JA: Share with us your background, your roots.
NVO: I was born in Northwest Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago, surrounded by a large, loving Mexican-American family that had landed in Indiana for work in the thriving steel industry. I grew up with a strong understanding of the importance of education and how education creates opportunity. My maternal grandmother, who was a high school graduate (unheard of for an orphan in the 1930s) was passionate about the importance of education and that was echoed by both my mother and my father. I am the middle child of three girls and it was always understood that education was a priority because it would gain us access to opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise.
JA: When did you realize you wanted to follow this career path?
NVO: I attended graduate school on a whim. While working at a non-profit in Chicago, a colleague of mine mentioned she was getting her master’s in social work. I was intrigued and originally thought I would pursue social work as well. However, once I visited the school and sat in on a class on child development, I was hooked. I knew in that exact moment I wanted to work in the field of early learning and advocate for children. While I had absolutely no idea what that work would be, I was certain that I could find a path that would allow me to work on behalf of children but one that wasn’t necessarily in a classroom. I’ve been given incredible opportunities to work in various youth-sector services that all have strong missions connected to equity, access, and education of children.
JA: What have been some of the top challenges you’ve faced during your career?
NVO: In my early twenties, I was recruited to be a co-founder of a public charter school in Los Angeles and to create their early childhood programs. Looking only at my resume, I was woefully unqualified, but the CEO of the school saw potential in me and took a chance. She has been one of my greatest mentors and that work afforded me opportunities to advance my career. That push into a new level of my career also meant that I was typically the youngest person in the room and the least experienced voice. It took time for me to believe in myself and understand that I deserved to be at the table as much as anyone else and understand that as a woman of color, my experiences are unique and need to be heard.
JA: What role do you see Latinx, Hispanic leaders playing in the future of the education industry?
NVO: We need more Latinx leadership in the field of education because the barriers for academic success for Latinx students are so severe. Latinx students underperform and are at higher risk of dropping out of school than their non-Latinx peers. We need educators and advocates who understand the experiences of our Latinx youth. There are many misconceptions and disconnects regarding culturally competent educators and school personnel, lack of bilingual programming, and lack of understanding of the unique and special dynamics of Latinx families. When Latinx leaders can bring their experiences, their successes and challenges to help develop new ways of working and creating new systems for change, we will see better outcomes, like higher graduation rates, for our Latinx youth.