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Careers for Bilinguals | A Conversation with Cecilia Chau

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Bilingual professionals—those who can speak two languages fluently—can find a myriad of job opportunities in the social-impact sector. With options to teach, participate in direct service, lead international teams, and more, dual-language speakers often find that the sector is their oyster.

For these reasons and more, making a change as a mid-career professional doesn't have to be as daunting as you may think (especially when you have the language skills to transition to another field or department).

Cecilia Chau, an advocate for children’s education, and in particular for building bilingual skills for all students—including those from disadvantaged backgrounds—has had this kind of career shift. Ms. Chau was passionate about working with children, but after some self-reflection, found herself needing to honor the creative aspects of her personality.

This lead her to a 5-year long career in the operations department at MCA Universal...but a fateful day in a coffee shop prompted a discovery that led her back to one of her first passions—working with immigrant children to develop useful skills that would help them later in life.

Read on to learn more about her story, as told to me in a recent interview:

Tell me a little bit about your current role.

I work as the Coordinator of a dual-language program. Students begin the program in pre-kindergarten and continue onto fifth grade. The program is recognized for its progressive views; the objective ensures all students graduating from fifth grade are bilingual, bicultural, and literate in both English and Spanish.

The particular school where I work is in one of the most marginalized communities on Staten Island. It (the program) belongs there, though everyone has said “don’t do it there.” Many people think specialized programs only belong to children of privilege. If there’s a theme among my trajectory in teaching and working in education, it’s social justice.

We needed to give the children in this community a fighting chance. College is not for everyone, but we have to think about what is interesting to the person involved—what will benefit them, and how they will make a living? Let’s give them language skills. Even if they don’t go to university, they can get a job because of their second language.

In Mariner’s Harbor, there have traditionally been Black Americans, Nigerian students, children from the Middle East and Yemen, and a big student population from Mexico. We’re helping the Black community, which has been here two or three generations, and also the newer generations. A dual-language program works beautifully when it’s done well. We are the first dual-language program that has pre-K; we are also the only school on Staten Island to have dual-language for children in special education or ICT (Integrated Co-teaching) classrooms.

How did you become interested in your career field?

Teaching is my second career, my second interest. It happened by accident. I’m originally from LA, and I worked at MCA Universal for many years.

I was at a coffee shop one day, and I saw a flier calling for volunteers—people who are bilingual and want to volunteer at schools. They didn’t have enough bilingual people to work in schools. So I held on to this flier for months and kept thinking about being in a classroom with kids... I just wasn’t sure if I had the skills to assist. I didn’t play school when I was little.

I finally called, and I have to tell you, the first day, the first hour, I knew I would change careers because it was so incredibly rewarding. Prior to working at the studio (MCA), I thought about becoming an immigration lawyer so I could help immigrants. Then it occurred to me that I could help the most vulnerable of immigrants, children. I could achieve this by working in schools. After I made that choice, I worked in the Los Angeles Unified School District for eight years.

How did you find your current job?

The first things that comes to mind are courage and chance. One of the mantras that I play in my head is, 'the harder I work, the luckier I get.' I never say “no” at work. I always say yes because it’s an opportunity—when you’re asked to do something outside of your regular job duties, such as going to a professional seminar, you never know who you may sit next to.

At one workshop, I met a woman who was launching a dual-language program. It’s a new push in NYC by the federal government; when world leaders gather to talk about education in the U.S., one of the weaker areas of our education system is that many students don’t graduate with dual language proficiency. (It’s not a requirement like it is in other countries.)

Language is a currency in my house. When the person I was sitting next to at this workshop said she was going to launch this, I said I was on board. I understand how important a second language can be, how it opens up opportunities. For children who are immigrants, it’s a way to honor their heritage and their native language as they learn the language of their new country.

What advice would you give to a bilingual job seeker who is interested in pursue a career path like yours?

You know the joke, become a teacher because of the summers off and the short days. Well, sure, if you want to be mediocre. But if you want to be at the top of your game, you really have to be prepared and have compassion. That’s first and foremost.

What we see, hear, and experience can make some people hardened. Teach first to the social and emotional aspects, by showing understanding of the children’s situations. When they are on the bus getting to school, it’s high energy; sometimes before they even have breakfast at school, they are upset. You have to figure out how to change this, otherwise they won’t be receptive to your teaching. Their emotional and social states must be ready for the day.

Then you have other situations in immigrant families; they are worried their families are going to be deported. They are six years old and this is what’s on their minds. So, compassion. This is what is needed. And enthusiasm. And you have to have energy.

What is a project that you’re really proud of? What was the result?

This is something that’s been ongoing, prior to working the dual language program. I named them Talleres, or “workshops” in Spanish. There's a misunderstanding that parents don’t want to teach their kids at home, but really it's that they don’t know how. I created workshops in both English and Spanish where I teach parents how to become their child’s teacher through simple steps.

For example, I teach them that cooking is a natural way to teach math. Let them see the measuring cups, how much of the ingredients are poured in, etc. When the kids are little, ask what numbers they see out in the world. Let them use a measuring tape to measure a table, lamp, rug, or anything around the house. I give parents sheets with systematic steps. I usually do about six workshops in math.

For the English workshops, I make sure they get a library card. You don’t have to buy books, the library is a great resource anyway. The library in our community is modern, beautiful, and underused. I reached out to the Head Librarian and established a Saturday reading program to bring more families to the library regularly. Every Saturday, a teacher from our school reads for an hour.

I give these parents a certificate at the end of the workshop, and they are so proud.

What have you learned from the students of the program?

That they’re so smart. That given the opportunity, a child that is disenfranchised can do the work, with the right professional in front of them. A lot of the argument is always, “oh you can’t teach them two languages—they can’t even speak one.” And I'm like, “Oh watch me.”

With the right professional, the right material, and the right structure, children will succeed. Success looks differently for all of them because not all of them are the same, they all have their unique set of challenges, but the important thing is that they progress.


By Victoria Crispo

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