For more than 18 years, I have been a part of MIND, and MIND has been a part of me. And while I will soon be leaving to take the next step in my personal and professional journey, that will not change.
Someone recently told me that I was like that cool senior classmate who all the incoming freshman looked up to for guidance and shortcuts. Someone else told me that I was the head of the welcoming committee to MIND. But the best compliment I have ever received was that I was “the heart of MIND.” As this story of Maria at MIND comes to a close, I want to honor those who along with me made a difference for millions of students by sharing some memories, as well as some lessons I’ve learned along my journey.
A Love of Learning
The first lesson I want to share is about developing a love of learning, and the power of having people believing in you.
When I came to MIND, I was a new mom accepting a position at the front desk not knowing what opportunities there would be for me and my little family. I was intimidated by the brains in our tiny little office space, but that intimidation was gone as those brains also demonstrated a heart and passion for improving the education outcomes in our country, and they were going to start with me.
I learned the value of education not only from our mission, but from the people behind it. I listened after they told me many times that I was just as smart as all the PhDs on the team. I just needed a piece of paper to seal the deal. College was not a thing I knew of or cared for, but they guaranteed me that getting a degree would give my family and me a different way of living, and they would be there to support me.
I did it, I went back to school.
It took me years and many sacrifices, but I finished my undergrad at CSUF. And I didn’t stop there. I later went through a Latina Leadership Program at USC, and I’m currently a second year Executive MBA student at Chapman University. They were absolutely right, not only was I smart, but I had the desire to learn, all because they believed in me.
The Joy of Seeing Students Grow
From my beginning at MIND, I knew that our ST Math program went beyond mathematics. Each time I visited a classroom, I saw how this little penguin JiJi gave students those “aha” moments. It gave them confidence, and it gave them control of their learning. Many for the first time, not feeling intimidated by the language or learning barriers, not afraid of making mistakes. They were proud and they were conquering those games along with JiJi.
This brings me to my next lesson I want to pass on as a graduating senior: go out and see the impact of the work. Go visit students, ask them questions, challenge them to have mathematical conversations with you, help them make real life connections. Have them see the math in places beyond a worksheet or a math book. Places like a soccer field, in the kitchen, or even in creating the next best video game.
This was by far my favorite part of my experience at MIND—taking partners to visit schools and standing back letting students show off their problem solving skills to smart professionals. By just observing them, it became my personal why to see myself and my son in each of those students.
Continuing to Challenge Myself
How did I go from the front desk to a director you ask? Being ready to take on a challenge whenever one appeared.
When MIND began doing fundraising events, one of the directors at the time asked me if I could come and support her meetings by taking notes. She believed that no one person should ever have all the information to themselves. Unexpected things happen, and she always liked having a Plan B. She knew exactly what she was talking about!
The day of our largest fundraising event, she had a serious medical issue at the hotel, while we were preparing to receive over 400 guests (thank God she got through it, because there were still many lessons I learned from her, and are still very good friends today). Janet Ray, our event chair looked at me and said, “Maria, you have been at every meeting, you know what we need to do, so why don’t you take charge?” I have no idea how I was able to pull that through, but that unfortunate situation gave me the opportunity. I started leading the volunteer efforts for this group and became part of the core team alongside many great friends, including my other “M,” Mike Limon. He and I became MIND’s M&M’s, driven by our community.
The lesson here—be ready to step up when the time comes.
From the time I started at MIND (and before), I was as authentic as I could be with everyone I met.
One day our then Chairman and CEO Ted Smith called me into his office to ask how I was doing, and what was next for me at MIND. With that question, he had me think about how else I could bring value to MIND, and continue to lead with the passion and dedication that I was characterized by. That is how eventually I became the Community Partnerships Director.
Although I never really liked fundraising it became second nature to me. I was making an impact in my community and beyond.
My next piece of advice is to be genuine, and build strong relationships with our colleagues and with our partners. Share with those you work closely with what gets you excited each morning, listen to that excitement, and see if it is still a good match with your current org/position. When people know what you are passionate about, they will help you create those opportunities.
Who remembers or has ever heard about “The Math Fair”? No, they are not a legend and those of us who were here for one or all three will probably never experience something like that again. It all started with Matthew’s crazy idea of doing a pop-up math museum that would travel the country. He gathered a group of us and said, “Let’s start working!”
We had no idea what that meant, what it would look like, but people got excited. Our designers in Studio JiJi started putting Matthew’s ideas on paper. My job was to go out and convince people to financially support this idea. It was amazing to see how those pictures slowly started coming to life. There were times when it was 2 or 3 am, and you would see so many of us still at the office working, cutting, designing, emailing, or crying our eyeballs out.
Besides raising funds, my special project from Matthew was getting 1,000 people to attend the Math Fair. I started visiting schools, museums, parks, and pitching to local media outlets in English and Spanish, like Telemundo. Leading up to it, we had no idea who would show up, but we were ready. We proudly received 2,000 people that first year. The next two years brought different challenges, but we all brought our strongest attributes to the project. I continued to talk to people, bringing funds while sharing my natural talent of a caretaker.
Let's not forget the third year when Matthew again came in with a brilliant idea—let’s have people taste math!
I thought, “Huh? Wait—I need a minute to cry.” Five minutes after my tears, I was excited! Yes, we created the “Taste of Math.” We had the opportunity to bring on 15 different chefs from around the country, and locally like our dear friends from Villa Roma Restaurant who all created delicious masterpieces of culinary math. That year we had a record breaking 5,000 people having fun with math.
The lesson here is that you can’t be afraid to think big. Surround yourself with colleagues that will work side by side making sure everyone succeeds, where titles don’t exist and where everyone in the group has something valuable to add. Don’t be afraid to ask to be included or excluded from a project you feel strongly about. If people personally reach out to you it’s because you can be an integral part of the team, do not doubt yourself.
There was a time when I believed that I was that checkbox MIND marked for being the diversity in the organization. But in representing my culture, my values, my authenticity, and my corazon, I took every opportunity to grow diversity in the organization and in our work. I founded MIND's first Diversity Council because I saw a lack of representation of the students we served. I was very intentional on who I invited to join us. I wanted it to be diverse, not only based on ethnicity, but I wanted it to be diverse in thought, in work, and in generations.
We became a very active group in the community representing MIND. We hosted various events to learn and benefit our English learner students. We received various recognition from groups like the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. We were invited to present at conferences like ALAS and NALEO which opened up for conversations and the addition of underrepresented communities. We participated at community events like the Hyundai Hope on Wheels. I was going places, literally. Here was this Santa Ana girl who never traveled outside her community, and now had the opportunity to visit more than 27 states while at MIND. I continued to be the Diversity Champion for MIND’s board.
I was also blessed to receive personal recognition for the work doing at MIND thanks to nominations from my peers (see my LinkedIn for a full list). I was named Top 10 Women to Watch in Orange County by OC Metro, and a Fun and Fearless Latina by Cosmopolitan Magazine, among many others. Fun fact—Ingrid Ellerbe, another one of my blessings at MIND, my son and I got to travel to New York, with all expenses paid to be recognized at Hearst Tower. When I gave my speech, they presented me as a Fearless Latina who was raising millions of dollars to provide an equity STEM platform for our Latino students through games. I knew that this was bigger than me.
As I mentioned my biggest recognition was during an all-MIND team conference, I received a special 3D printed JiJi, but not just any JiJi—this was JiJi with a heart. Matthew announced that the file that created that award was destroyed because that was one of a kind, just like I was to MIND. What Matthew said that day, will carry on as one of my best memories at MIND.
Serving All Students
Our work and our ST Math program give students a sense of belonging and a sense of pride. Getting a response as to why you are right or why you were wrong with no judgement. Allowing students to quickly pivot their thinking and reasoning. The way that ST Math respects the students is powerful.
But we need to continue to find ways to support all students, schools and families. I am so very proud of Dorene Uhrich, Claire Asander, and their team acting on the need to communicate with our parents in Spanish. Getting more resources translated is something that in the 18 years I was here, I wanted to accomplish more of. So when they asked me to record a video welcoming Spanish-speaking families to ST Math, it was a very personal project for me.
Going out with this project was the best way to say farewell—with my most authentic voice, to the students I represented for these past 18 years.
So my last piece of advice is this—do not give up on something that is important to you. Keep mentioning it to everyone who will listen. For me, I am grateful that I was invited to be part of this project. My voice will live on forever with our MIND families, and I love that.
MIND can mean different things to different people. Whatever MIND means to you, share that as it will help you get to the people you need to get to. I was very blessed to get to a personal level with many of these students and families that knew that they were my personal why.
I’ll leave all of my fellow colleagues with a question: What is your why at MIND? And to those outside the organization: What is your why, in whatever you are doing?
I hope some of these lessons, and the memories I’ve shared, can help you on your journey as well.
Forever a JiJi Believer—until we cross paths again,