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Éxito latino: de trabajar en una fábrica de almohadas a dirigir un colegio en New Jersey

The Venezuelan Teacher Now Running a New Jersey School

A story of overcoming the odds that is sometimes quite common among Hispanics in the United States: starting out in the informal sector, beginning to study with great effort and then achieving the American dream

[Leer en español]

In 1989, Ingrid Sandia, by then a Venezuelan biochemist, arrived in the United States as a tourist. Her idea, at first, was to return to Venezuela, but soon after she decided to stay and make a life in New Jersey, the state that welcomed her and where she still lives.

Before migrating, Ingrid had graduated in biochemistry in Venezuela, in the state of San Cristóbal, a region quite close to Colombia. She says that, although in the South American country in the late eighties and early nineties “there were still opportunities”, she decided to start from scratch in the United States because “this country is the true land of opportunities for those who really come to work and take advantage of it.”

Éxito latino: la profesora que pasó de la informalidad a dirigir destacado colegio en New Jersey
In the picture, Ingrid Sandia. Teacher and director of the Rainbow Land Learning Center school. (Courtesy).

“I stayed, I didn’t understand any English and I arrived in a community where only Portuguese and English were spoken. No Spanish was spoken and I had that double language barrier,” Ingrid recounted, explaining how her first steps in New Jersey went. “I started working in a pillow factory, I worked there for three months and then immigration came to the company and I was very afraid because that could mean deportation. I didn’t want to go back again.”

“Then,” Ingrid continued, “I started working in a place of some acquaintances where I didn’t need papers, from there I went to a laundry and that’s how I spent a whole year while I managed to find my place.”

The community where Ingrid arrived is The Ironbound, a neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. The biochemist explained that, when she arrived, in “this community there were many Portuguese and Europeans, but today there are more Brazilians and Hispanics from Central America and also from some parts of South America, such as Peru and Ecuador.”

Beginning her career in the classroom

After that complex first year, when Ingrid Sandia experienced first-hand the language barriers and informality, her first opportunity to start a career in education arrived. Her husband, who had migrated with her, obtained a labor contract that allowed her to access a work permit and thus enter a school as a teaching assistant.

“It was very difficult because I had not yet mastered English and I had to work with a lady who had no patience towards me, I was 23 years old and I said: well, I’m going to get out of this, it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t understand me or have any patience, even if I have to use signs, I have to solve and adapt.”

Ingrid earned four dollars an hour as an assistant, the equivalent of about 160 dollars a week, a salary that went “to the lady who took care of my son,” she said. “That’s when I said, ‘I have to find a way to start climbing. To move up. So I went to a community center in Newark where they gave free English classes for migrants. I took my course, I went at night, I had to catch a bus and it was a bit of a dangerous area. I did that for two years.”

That course, American TV programs and starting to interact with locals on a daily basis helped Ingrid finally master English so she could aspire to better jobs and positions in the educational world.

It wasn’t going to be easy to find that opportunity. Even though she had already been working as an assistant for several years, and had had her World Education Center paperwork equivalencies done — a necessary requirement for teaching that at the time cost $500, a considerable amount for her — the school where Ingrid was enrolled did not consider her for a classroom teaching position.

 La historia de Ingrid Sandia, de trabajar en una fábrica de almohadas a dirigir un colegio en New Jersey
Facade of the Rainbow Land Learning Center school, Ingrid Sandia’s current workplace. (Courtesy).

“They didn’t want to give me the opportunity. They wouldn’t give it to me because I was Hispanic,” lamented Ingrid, who felt rejection from the teaching staff at that institution whom she did not mention directly. “The position was finally given to a professor who was not related to the institution. So, I said: I don’t have to stay here. I have to find a way to be a teacher.”

Little did this brief setback in her career matter to Ingrid, because it was the first impetus to start studying at the university and get her teaching degree. “Graduating as a teacher was a very big effort. I did it by working during the day, studying at night and with young children I had to take care of. Once with my degree in hand, I was given the opportunity to work in a school as a kindergarten teacher.”

Ingrid Sandia’s big leap

According to Ingrid’s story, one of the mothers of one of the kindergarten students offered her to be the head teacher at the school she wanted to open. She told Ingrid that she trusted and liked her work, which she was able to observe firsthand through her daughter. Ingrid not only accepted the position, but was involved in the project from day one, helping to make the arrangements in Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, the city where all the arrangements related to educational institutions are made.

This school is called Rainbow Land Learning Center, a place where Ingrid has established herself as a renowned teacher in The Ironbound, after being a fundamental part of the school for more than 27 years.

“When we started, Rainbow started with three classes. Then it went up to six classes, we moved to another building and went up to eight. Once we got to that number, the Newark school district contacted us to tell us they heard about us and liked our educational system. They told us verbatim: We want to hire you,” she proudly recalled.

The district eventually hired the institution to serve four-, five- and six-year-olds. “The growth was so exponential that we had to expand,” said the now director of Rainbow Land Learning Center. “Today we have two schools, with 12 classes on one side and eight classes on the other. We serve 300 families and have 62 employees.”

An inside image of the Rainbow Land Learning Center. (Courtesy)

In 2008, Ingrid Sandia still wasn’t satisfied with her professional accomplishments. “I needed a master’s degree so I could keep climbing.” In two years, from 2008 to 2010, Ingrid had to work again during the day as Head Teacher at Rainbow School, raise her two children, “no longer one, but two,” and study for her master’s degree at night at Saint Elizabeth University. She did it all. She earned her master’s degree and the school district finally offered her the position of school principal, a position Ingrid treasures.

It was thus that, after several decades of effort, she achieved the highest position to which she could aspire within an educational institution that has gained important prestige in Newark. She started with informal jobs, in pillow factories and laundries, without speaking English. She had to work, raise her children and study at the same time to improve her academic level and aspire to better jobs. She successfully headed a school and reached the position of principal thanks to the recognition of the school district.

Today Ingrid Sandia is happy. She has a beautiful family and a hard-earned job that she enjoys. She says she is happy in The Ironbound, the neighborhood where she has lived for so many years. She is also glad that, today, she has the opportunity to help Hispanic migrants who come to the community: she advises, guides and counsels them. “That fulfills me,” she says.

Without forgetting her origins, Ingrid still remembers Venezuela, where she still has her family and friends. She says she also helped several people to leave the South American country so that, just as she herself did, people have their own opportunity to develop in a more favorable context that allows them to reach their full potential and try to fulfill their dreams. If she could make it, others can too.

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