City College Feels Like my True Home Institution

Norma Mayorga-Fuentes


Norma Mayorga Fuentes, director of the Latin American and Latino Studies program, spoke to us about her experience at the Colin Powell School and what makes it special. 

Please share something about your personal and professional background, and what brought you to CCNY and the Colin Powell School.

I am an immigration scholar, a qualitative sociologist/ethnographer by training and a philosopher by default. When I was invited to give a job talk at City College, late spring of 2014, coincidentally scheduled within the newly renovated premises of the Dominican Studies Institute, I remember being very nervous.  My talk focused on the immigrant experiences of Dominican and Mexican women in New York City and included a crowd of Latino/a/ Caribbean scholars I recognized. To slow the rate of my pulse, or break the silence, following my academic introduction, I remember sharing with my audience what brought me to City College. I said that I felt this is where I belonged given my past history of volunteer work for a national Dominican 2000 conference led by Dominican youth; my rushing to donate a copy and electronic version of dissertation, the moment Columbia Library bounded it, following my degree completion, in 2005.
A month before, the day of my dissertation defense, my mentor, Herbert J Gans, a world-renown race, ethnicity and urban poverty expert, had announced that I was the first U.S. Latina-American to receive a PhD from the Sociology Department, as other peers or graduates before me, socialized in Latin America, often returned to their nation of origins to transfer their elite education into their nation-state or society.  I remember sharing this statistic and emphasizing, as I do in the prologue of my recently published book on this subject, that unlike the average Latin American student who enters Columbia, my education was unusual, as the daughter of a single Dominican mother, and as a third generation descendant of a family nursed, sustained, and led by working women, devoid of the income authority or tutelage of men. I shared with my audience and since then with my students, to try and gain their trust or incite their humanity, why City College feels like my true home institution. I tell them how, like the average CCNY Colin Powell student, I had managed to achieve a higher or advanced education, despite multiple family, work, and intergenerational responsibilities as the daughter of working poor immigrants; and as the first member of my family to reach such mobility heights in the diaspora.  

As my ongoing, longitudinal and comparative research focused on the social mobility of the daughters of immigrants in the cities of Amsterdam and New York reveals, these immigrant youth often face double burdens, forced to navigate the larger institutions of the host society, alone and mostly on behalf of their parents’ and younger siblings. We are, I often joke but invite my students’ reflections about the miracle, meaning and function of our education, as part of an innovative and not fully understood social experiment in a new terrain, like those of men-directed robots on the moon, charting new terrains, gathering new data, which one day hopefully bring our host nation new discoveries for a better world, a more humane society.  But, again, why City College? I tell students these days that I survived at Columbia’s PhD Program. It was here where I found a refuge, a place to volunteer, to dream of the possibility of social mobility, of having a space and function in the larger society, along with other Dominican graduate students, like Nancy Lopez (Professor, University of New Mexico); Edward Paulino (Professor, John Jay); and Zaire Dinzey (Professor, Rutgers University) and others I cannot include nor recall at this moment. It was in these young students’ company, in the DSI, and in the NAC building where I found solace, away from the pressures and at the times isolation and at times, alienation, from the privileged peers with whom I shared classes and other assignments. As I say in my book, and as one of my daughters has reminded me whenever I feel like leaving, “it is there mom, where you will really make a difference, nowhere else!”

How did you decide to pursue a PhD and discover a passion for your field?
While completing a summer course within the Anthropology Department at Columbia, spring of 1989, an advanced PhD Adjunct Professor invited me after students had presented their individual end-of-term projects, to speak about graduate school. His name is David Nugent, today a distinguished MacArthur Genius Fellowship recipient. He asked me if I had plans for graduate school, and after I professed an interest for maybe Law School or Public Health, he retorted, “Why not a PhD in Anthropology or Sociology?” I remember being in awe of this proposition; that he would think I was a candidate for a PhD, as I had never entertained such a possibility, determined to complete a medical or law degree, as most children of immigrants are encouraged to aspire. Besides, I had already earned an Associate Degree in Economics and Business Law at a Catholic College in Yonkers, and given it some try at a pre-medical program at Fordham University (2 years) and then at Columbia’s School of General Studies. The spring I was to apply to college, I had proposed to my guidance counselor my interests in medical school; but was soon persuaded to first complete a two-years’ associate degree: “Who’s going to pay for your school, my dear?”  my counselor gestured, “…. I suggest you learn how to type and this way you can pay for your school and help your mother!”  Despite his disavowals, completing an AA degree in business law and executive secretarial ensured my educational and career mobility and boosted my confidence. After my associates, I had brief jobs in a non-profit servicing immigrants in the City of Yonkers, and then as a Social Worker in the local district, within foster care. The experiences and my typing increased my ability to find work at Columbia University and pay for most of my undergraduate and graduate years. 
By the time of my transfer application to the School of General Studies at Columbia University as a part-time student, I had already secured a full-time job on campus. A work peer and close ally of my then husband, suggested I try to find a job at the university, irrespective of a possible admission. “This would allow you to get some form of tuition assistance and become a member of this educational community!” Indeed, after a placement test at the HR office allowed me the choice of a full time job as Assistant to the Director of the Harriman Russian Institute or to the Chair of the Sociology Department, I chose the latter. Unbeknown to me, and in retrospect, I came to understand how privileged I was to have worked and received the close mentoring of such brilliant and humane scholars, such as Professor Peter M. Blau, a world renowned sociologist of bureaucracy and formal organizations, and later, from Professor Herbert J Gans, who became my undergraduate senior thesis advisor and then my PhD mentor and professional sponsor.  Working within the Department, despite my youth and lack of elite social capital, gave me the unique opportunity to read sociological manuscripts, and professional reviews about innovative research and scholarly work which I hardly understood then but which slowly captured my interest, helping me forge a life-time commitment to the sociology of inequality, labor markets, and later, during my graduate training, one focused on international migration, race, ethnicity, and integration and life chances of migrant women and their youth.

Can you please briefly describe your scholarly work and findings? What’s most meaningful to your field — and to you — about your work?
I think what distinguishes my scholarship as well as my teaching pedagogy is my ability to move from my own experience to that of my research. The knowledge, sensitivity and sensibleness I have developed I owe to my grandmother’s, my mother’s immigrant experience, as well as my socialization in two cultures and as a transnational youth. Most important, my scholarship is based on my ability to represent and interpret the immigrant experiences of the immigrant women I am privileged to document and learn about the protean efforts and stories of Dominican and Mexican women in New York City, the cost and gains behind their migration, and the contributions they make to the social mobility of women in the community of origin and of destination. Such key findings I document in my recent and first book, From Homemakers, To Breadwinners, To Community Leaders (Rutgers 2023). A main key contribution this book makes is in documenting the significance of women-led migration from Latin America and the Caribbean within an increasingly racialized context. I believe this research is timely, especially against the backdrop of policy debates about the future of family reunification laws and the unprecedented immigration of women and minors from Latin America, many of whom seek human rights protection or to reunite with families in the US. The book also provides a new and compelling look at the contributions that Latin American and Caribbean as well as other brown and Black immigrants make to areas experiencing rapid gentrification. How the middle class that moves into East or West Harlem, for example, includes a brown and Black middle class, some of this ethno-racial middle class includes college-educated children of immigrants, whose bi-cultural and mixed racial background allows them to navigate and cross spatial boundaries, as well as contribute to the economic and cultural revival of these historically marginalized neighborhoods. My second book, on the social mobility of immigrant youths, also will include how these contexts and their education and the demography of the neighborhood impacts their racial capital, or valuation or devaluation of their ethno-racial identities.

Can you say a bit about what you like about CCNY and the Colin Powell School? Perhaps speak to your work with students.
What do I like about CCNY?  

Working for a division committed to closing the gap in educational inequality, one where most of my colleagues speak or understand or are committed to learning Spanish or another immigrant language. But, for the past 1.5 year, or since our return to back to our offices and the classroom, I have been seriously thinking of writing a poem about our mechanical escalator in the NAC building, for I know this experience is what binds most of our daily existence in our division, besides our commitment to social justice in education! But, I would like to write first about the men and women who keep those escalators, along with our offices and trash cans cleaned, the floors incredibly shiny! I am inspired because it is usually these ‘behind-stage’ actors who make this rather unattractive and forgotten infrastructure physically welcoming to our students and staff. These workers, like the young alumni or students who toil, front and back-stage functions within the Dean’s Office reception area, are also the first or last people who greet me when I arrive or leave the building. What else do I like about our Division? I have become somewhat of an informal expert these past few years directing students to the different classroom destinations, noticing their disoriented looks, during the start of the semester. This past year, in my role as Program Director for LALS, I have become aware of the nice community vibe our division enjoys; the smiles I get from my senior peers in Psychology, especially when I dash through the long corridors of the 6th floor on my way to a classroom; the warm reception I get when walking into the Dean’s Office from any of the young alumni or students who attentively want to help me find a key for my room, the countless times I have locked myself or forgotten my office’s keys. Lately, I am kindled and rejoiced to know soon our Associate Dean will begin to bake his delicious loaves of bread and place them in the common kitchen that now serves as a meeting and community place for most of us. I am reminded of how lucky I am every time I run into Dean Rich, reminded by his warmth and support that I am in the right place, and that things will be ok, working for a person named “Rich!” I think the heart of our division, honestly, is the Advising Office, the young students/alumni and staff, and the senior staff and professors that today make up that office.  There is always someone to receive me, to help one of my students, to rush and get tissues for the latest tears, including mine. Lastly, I am reminded that I am part of a large and protean community at Colin Powell. Every time, I think I must wear my red shoes or ornamental jewelry to match the red color of our wall or floor tiles! That in itself makes me want to come to work every day, smile, and forget about the squeaking mechanical stairs or the non-functioning elevators!

Share something about your plans — regarding research, teaching, engagement — for the next couple of years?
These past few weeks, I have been preparing to take my year sabbatical while onboarding the interim director for LALS, Professor Sherri Baver. This has allowed me to develop a closer work relationship with her, as well as with the Dean’s Office, especially with Kevin Foster, and Professor Irina (Lotti) Silber, as LALS is officially now part of the larger jurisdiction of the Anthropology Department. One key goal to be achieved during this sabbatical year is to develop a grant for the Spencer Foundation, one which is to support an educational project which I have been thinking about for nearly five years. But, writing a book, applying for tenure and other family and field research responsibilities have limited my time. I hope this grant will allow collaboration between the Sociology Department and LALS Program in the development of new courses and virtual certificate or MA Programs focused on the bridging of the social sciences and STEM disciplines. I am working also in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of international scholars at the Universities of Granada and Deusto (Spain), and at La Universidad Popular Autonoma de Puebla (UPAEP), in Mexico, and Universidad Madre y Maestra in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A second goal of my sabbatical is to complete follow-up data collection on the role of technology on the educational and work mobility as well as identity formation processes of immigrant daughters in the cities of Amsterdam and New York City. The research is to inform the writing of a second book project. I will conduct a number of in-depth interviews, in addition to focus groups among daughters and mothers, who participated in an earlier part of this longitudinal project, in 2006-2007 and again in 2009-2010. I also will conduct ethnographic insights of a few neighborhoods undergoing gentrification and public housing renovations; where new cohorts of young, middle class Moroccan and Dominican families, many immigrant youth who have participated in my earlier study, have found housing.

What would you want to make sure everyone knows about what makes the Colin Powell School special? 
I believe what makes our School special is the diverse number of scholars that work together on behalf of our large number of youths who are the first in their families to enter an institution of higher education. I believe the addition of a Center for Leadership, one for providing support and education to sexual minorities and the constant efforts in the search and distribution of material and emotional resources on behalf of our students and of the new faculty and lecturers that are joining our division, including our Dean’s reputation (:-) as well as the initiative of the Provost Office (with the hiring of Dr. Vanessa Valdez) speaks of the difference the CP is making in the inclusion of members from our local community in its commitment to narrowing the gap in educational inequality!

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