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How a Penguin Changed My Career

Surround yourself with the dreamers and the doers, the believers and thinkers, but most of all, surround yourself with those who see the greatness within you, even when you don’t see it yourself.

—Edmund Lee

Edmund Lee’s quote resonates with my life and journey at MIND Research Institute. I came to work for MIND in 2002 starting at the front desk. I didn’t have plans for a career; I just needed a job that would help me provide for my family. It didn’t take much time for me to realize that this place had so much potential. 

Going Back to School

I never thought college was meant for people like me, thinking my time had passed and now it was my job to provide for my family the best I could by supporting my son.  However, my supervisor at the time didn’t think the same way and shared her story of going to college at the same time her daughter was going to college. She said it is never too late, and that I needed to lead by example. When my son started kindergarten I made the wise decision to go back to school and go against all odds! I had tried to go back to school before, but ran into a counselor that shut me down by saying, “if you didn’t have it in you right after high school, what makes you think you are college material now that you have a family and have failed before?” The difference this time was that I had a great support system. People that put a mirror in front of me and let me see for the first time what others saw in me; something I was too blind to see for myself. I was different in many ways but they also showed me that I should use my differences to my advantage.

Spreading our Mission

I am a proud member of the MIND family. I am growing with them and continue to grow day by day as a professional, never forgetting how I began and taking every chance I get to sit back at that front desk. After being the receptionist here for about a year, I began helping with the special events until eventually I became the primary person responsible for the event with some amazing support. I began meeting interesting people from around the county and introducing them to our mission, our teachers and students, sharing their unique stories that went beyond mathematical education. JiJi, the loveable penguin in MIND’s ST Math program, was now the one holding that mirror to thousands of students, challenging them, and having them see that they too have the potential to succeed.   

Diversifying MIND’s Leadership

Seeing our schools and the communities they represent made me step back and realize that we were not accurately representing the student population we serve. I worked on a plan to start the MIND Diversity Council and presented it to our Board. We would develop a Diversity Council that would not only be diversified ethnically and by gender but by professional backgrounds as well. If we were truly going to tackle the academic gap in the local communities we needed to have the voice of all affected parties around the table. The MIND Diversity Council consisted of parents, district folks, legislative representative as well as members of our business community.   

I Became a Fundraiser!

I never thought my career path would lead me to fundraising but here I was, writing grants, meeting funders and securing donations. At first I felt out of place. In my family you never ask for money, and if someone asked me for money I would think they were crazy. This is when I thought to myself, “it is time to move on because this is certainly not what I am comfortable doing.” Once again there was a mirror in my face showing me that even though I never considered myself a fundraiser, I was very successful at it. I wasn’t just asking for funds. I was sharing stories with community members and building partnerships that would immediately benefit the students and teachers but also would eventually benefit the business community in the long run. Building partnerships with mutual interests was really the key!  When I came to that conclusion everything just came naturally. I became the Diversity Partnerships Manager and I now have a strong history of 12 years at MIND. Now that MIND is a national organization, we have stronger opportunities to continue to share our mission and I am thankful that I can show my gratitude by doing my best every day.


I have never expected recognition for what I do. I simply was grateful for the opportunity I have been given to help change lives. My colleagues believed there was something unique about the way I was doing things and nominated me for a couple of awards. 

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In May of 2013, I received the Fun and Fearless Latina Award by Cosmopolitan Magazine, where I was able to share the stage with great personalities such as Natalie Morales, Lala Anthony and a few others in New York City. Why a local Santa Ana girl? Because that girl has a passion for what she does! Full press release:

In November of 2013, I received the Comerica Bank Best of LA Women’s Business Award for Woman of Diversity. Full press release:

I was honestly shocked to receive these awards, but honored to share with my mentors, colleagues and most importantly my son. When he said to me, “Mom, so this is what college can do for you?” I knew everything was worth it!

Maria Cervantes

About the Author

Maria Cervantes is the Community Partnerships Director at MIND Research Institute. Find her on Twitter @magucervantes1.


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