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Latinx Heritage Month: A Mother, Daughter and Educator – Gregoria Cahill

In May of 2019, Gregoria Cahill received her Doctor of Education degree in Educational Leadership for Social Justice from California State University, East Bay, and as she walked the stage and received her honors it vindicated the winding path of her pursuit of education and self-improvement.

“I remember my mom would tell me to get an education to have a better life and not be a farmer. So when I started, I thought, I was going to school for my mom, to make her proud.” Gigi recalled. “My mother was told to not go to school and was pulled out of school in 3rd grade.”

Gregoria, or Gigi, was born in Bolivia in Tocaña, a small community of Afrobolivianos, outside of Coroico. Tocaña had no hospital, only a midwife, and although Gigi was the 5th child born to Toribia Zabala Piñedo and Narciso Nova Zabala, she was only the third to survive childbirth. In Tocaña children often didn’t graduate from the local school, which went up to the 5th grade. Gigi wanted a different life. At the age of 12 with the blessings of her family, Gigi moved, a three-hours walk, into a town with a school that went up through a middle school curriculum. Gigi lived in that town with a woman who had her own restaurant, living there for a couple of years and attending middle school.

In order to attend high school, Gigi’s older brother, Roberto negotiated a living situation with the principal of the local high school and his wife, the high school nurse; she would help around the house in exchange for room, board and school supplies. Part of the high school curriculum at the school she attended required community service to graduate. Gigi served at an orphanage in Cochabamba called Madre de Dios. Here she reconnected with a volunteer from Notre Dame University that helped teach English. The volunteer began serving at the American International School in Cochabamba and suggested she talk to the principal of that high school about enrolling to continue her studies in English.

“I got a scholarship after graduating from high school and was taking classes at the University in Cochabamba and was going to high school again to take classes in English.’ Gigi said.

With the help of a counselor at the American International School, Gigi made her way through the application process to universities in the USA. This mentor conducted mock interviews, helped her draft a personal statement and helped her apply to schools.

“I was accepted at Beloit College with a 50% scholarship. Phyllis Kaplan and others were able to help me with the other half.” Gigi remembered.

Phyllis remembered clearly when the door between the kitchen and the dining room swung open. “Gigi and I met, eye and heart contact happened almost instantly! I was in Bolivia as a consultant to the American International School where Gigi was studying. She often reminds me that I spent the following week asking her, ‘what are you planning to do in the future?’”

All the mentors at this point in her life came together to support Gigi as she got her passport, travel documents and plane ticket to Beloit, Wisconsin. She arrived in August of 1997 right before the fall semester began, very confused.

“I had been telling people that I was going to Wisconsin, California not knowing that Wisconsin and California were two different places.” Gigi said. “About two or three weeks after I arrived, I saw the leaves change for the first time and I was so scared, I thought I had been sent to a place where trees and plants die.”

Gigi had a first tough winter in Wisconsin, but during breaks would travel back and forth to stay in California with her American mom Phyllis and her American dad Michael.

“Her first time attending GLIDE was Christmas of her freshman year at Beloit College.” Phyllis recalls.

Gigi graduated 4 years later with a major in Modern Language, minor in Linguistics and a certificate to teach English as a Second Language(TESL). She moved back to California to stay with her American family, and continued her pursuit of education with the future aspiration of being able to be supportive for others on their educational journey. She dabbled in teaching and eventually obtained a Masters in Counseling at California State University, East Bay. After a period of time as an intern at City College of San Francisco, she was hired as an Academic Counselor in 2004 and became full-time faculty in 2007. She then became one of the coordinators for the Puente Program.

“The Puente Program is a year-long academic and community leadership program designed to increase the number of community college students transferring to 4-year colleges or universities. To meet this goal, the national award-winning program emphasizes writing, counseling and mentoring”

Most recently Gigi was hired as the Interim Dean of San Francisco City College Mission Center and Transitional Studies where she hopes to continue to be able to advocate for students and encourage, empower, teach and bring the best out of each student helping them to navigate higher education.

“Not only is she a star and successful but she is amazingly giving, loving, incredible, professional and it is a blessing to have her as our daughter.” Phyllis Kaplan said.

It’s Latinx Heritage month, are there any words you would like to share with the younger generation?

Always remember where you come from. Anything I do I remember where I come from. Life hasn’t been easy but I remember the steps that I took to get me where I am today.

Trust in education, it’s really the key to moving forward. Always look for help, if you feel stuck then find somebody who can help you. I wouldn’t have made it this far without mentors, a lot of them are from GLIDE. I have so many mentors. If you don’t have the support at home or feel like you don’t have anyone to help you, a mentor can be someone you can go to and they will help.

If someone says, ‘no I can’t help you,’ find someone else! Don’t let that ‘no’ be a barrier. If someone said no to me, I found someone else that could help me, as shy as I was, I was able to find another person to ask for help. If you can find someone who can ask questions on your behalf, that works too! I wouldn’t have been able to get into the Master’s program without the help of Phyllis; without her I wouldn’t have known who to ask for help. Phyllis went beyond being a mentor to me, she’s my mom, she’s my American mom.

Remember, education is key. It opens the door to opportunities, a better life, a better paying job, it helps you make decisions. Your voice is more likely to be heard more clearly. I am still helping students, in a different way, and I’m continuing to advocate for any students who needs help.

There’s a huge achievement gap for Latinx, African-American, and Pacific Islander students. I am hoping to be able to make a different type of impact as Interim Dean.

We all have dreams; act on them. It might not be easy but you can do it. Make time to study; know that with hard work and dedication it is possible to have a more productive and successful life. Education will change your life. How has your path been shaped by your identity? At Beloit College people would assume I was from Africa. I would tell them I was from Bolivia and they would ask ‘oh where is Bolivia in Africa?’ I would have to correct them. Others would ask if I was African-American and I’d have to ask ‘well what do you define as America?’ I claimed my identity as an Afrobolivian to answer questions like these.

Sometimes people ignore the beautiful mixture of culture and identity that the world has and that’s their loss. Coming to GLIDE has been eye opening for me because in Bolivia there is no open LGBTQ community; knowing GLIDE embraces everybody felt right.

What impact has colorism had on your life or the impact of colorism that you’ve seen in Bolivia?

Bolivian discrimination is based on money; if you don’t have money you’re discriminated against. There are also certain last names that are considered to be less-than. I had a classmate that wanted to change their last name because it wasn’t European enough.

There’s still a struggle especially for people of African descent, only a few years ago were Afrolatins recognized as part of the Bolivian community and it was a struggle to be acknowledged. People told me I was destined to be a maid. They said, I wasn’t smart and I wouldn’t make it in school; I was even more motivated to prove them wrong.

My mother encouraged us to get an education, to have a better life, to not be a farmer. I really started to go to school for my mom. At first, I pursued education to make her proud.

I wanted to show my mom that I could do it, finish school and take advantage of any educational opportunities possible.