January 19, 2012 | Queens College
Emilia Lopez prepares school psychologists to work with students from diverse backgrounds
Emilia Lopez (Educational & Community Programs) came to the United States from Cuba when she was 12 years old. Her first school experience in this country was memorable—for the wrong reasons.
“In those days, schools didn’t make any efforts to integrate immigrant children into the classroom,” she recalls. “Generally, children were put back a year. I had been an excellent student in Cuba. In my first American classroom in Passaic, New Jersey, I was bored. I remember my mother telling me that the school put me in the wrong math class. I felt at an early age that I wanted to go into education when I got older.”
Lopez did just that. She attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey for her undergraduate work and then went to Fordham University for her doctorate, focusing on bilingual and multicultural issues in school psychology. At Fordham, she found mentors who helped her carve out a path of study and a fulfilling career. “Several professors, including Giselle Esquivel and Roland Yoshida, were not only excellent teachers, but also took an interest in me. It’s one thing to teach, and another to say, ‘How can I help you?’”
Those professors serve as role models for Lopez as she trains school psychologists to work with children who come from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Lack of English skills is not the only issue. “Teachers don’t expect the same things around the world, and the school community needs to be aware of this,” says Lopez. “In a city like New York, this awareness should be a given, but often it is not, especially now in these difficult economic times.
“My experience as a 12-year-old immigrant colored my world,” she continues. “I wasn’t just learning a new language; I was learning a new culture, a new way to be in the world with new friends and a new home. These are very profound changes for a young person.”
Lopez teaches her students to assess children from diverse language and cultural backgrounds, and to work with school interpreters to provide appropriate services. She also shows her students how to provide culturally responsive interventions and consulting to meet the educational and mental health needs of pupils.
Lopez has been teaching at QC since 1989 and is constantly impressed by her students’ dedication. “My students are out in the field doing the hard work,” she says. “I continue to learn from them as they bring challenging situations back to the classroom, where we see how we can put into practice what we’ve learned in theory.”
Has much changed since Lopez came to these shores? “There has been definite progress, but much more work is needed,” she notes. “Many schools function very much in the same way as the school that I entered when I first came to this country. There is still a great need for schools to be better staffed with teachers, guidance counselors, and psychologists who understand and are sensitive to second-language development and acculturation.”
Assistant Director of News Services