NEW BRITAIN – In many ways, Dr. Miguel Cardona has a lot in common with New Britain High School students, including being from an immigrant family, growing up bicultural and loving MufonGo’s, a Puerto Rican restaurant in New Britain.
“I had a pork dish that I couldn’t finish, it was so delicious,” Cardona said with a laugh to a virtual audience of roughly 100 New Britain High School English learner students Thursday. “I actually started my career at New Britain High School as a tutor. I remember the wonderful people that I worked with and that’s the kind of people you want to surround yourself with.”
Joined by Dr. Marisa Cartiera, an English Learner teacher, Wanda Lickwar, district coordinator of Bilingual ESL and World Language and Superintendent Nancy Sarra in a virtual chat, students were able to learn more about how Cardona’s roots and background became the foundation of his success story.
Poised to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education for President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet, Cardona hoped his experiences will inspire students to achieve great things and to be proud of who they are.
“I was born in Meriden. My parents are from Puerto Rico and I learned Spanish before I learned English,” he said. “I think one thing that’s important to remember is to not forget your native language and be proud of being bicultural. That served me well and it can be a blessing for you.”
As a product of Meriden Public Schools, he graduated from Wilcox Technical High School and became a teacher in the same district. He received his bachelor’s degree from Central Connecticut State University and completed his master’s at UConn in bilingual/bicultural education, Administrator Preparation Program, doctorate in Education and Executive Leadership Program certificate. He went on to become principal at Hanover Elementary School at the age of 27, then became assistant superintendent of Meriden Public Schools. In 2019, Cardona became the first Latino resident appointed as the state Commissioner of Education.
When he first stepped onto CCSU’s campus, Cardona said he was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. As the first person in his family to go to college, he said that experience opened his eyes to so many different opportunities.
“I believed in myself more when I saw students who looked like me and who also wanted to teach,” he said. “I was able to focus on my passion, which is to teach and to serve people and kids. That was very important to me.”
Cardona broke out in Spanish for portions of the chat and emphasized it was important to realize that by being bicultural, it is one of the greatest gifts because it brings different perspectives.
“Don’t be ashamed of who you are. Use your gift and connect with people,” he said.
During a quick question and answer session, a student asked what improvements Cardona hopes to accomplish through his new position. Cardona said he wants to improve career pathways for students, to address the achievement gaps for Black and brown students and to make sure that the federal agency is providing funding and resources to school districts to address these issues.
“I want to make sure that all students have the same opportunities,” he said. “I believe we can do that.”
Ultimately, he hopes students will take away something positive from Thursday’s chat. “Be proud of who you are, be proud of being bicultural, share that pride and go serve your community,” Cardona said.
Both Cartiera and Lickwar echoed Cardona’s words, stating it is an advantage to be biliterate.
“It will open so many more opportunities in whatever path you choose,” Lickwar said.
As a former EL student, Cartiera said she hopes students will take Cardona’s story as an inspiration for them.
“You really can achieve what your heart desires through hard work and determination,” she said. “He is a great example for that.”