To say Anabelle Diaz beat the odds is an understatement. Her story is a testament to how courage, determination, an unwavering sense of purpose, and mentors who had tremendous faith in her abilities transformed a life burdened with obstacles.
The “triple” CCSU graduate was born in Puerto Rico and came to Hartford with her brother and mother when she was nine years old. She spoke no English, and the family arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Domestic violence had forced the family to leave Puerto Rico in a hurry.
Despite multiple hardships, including raising two children (now ages 10 and 17) as a single mother for many years, Diaz managed to complete not only her bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, but also a Doctor of Education — all at CCSU. She is now an assistant principal at her high school alma mater, Prince Technical High School in Hartford. She also is engaged to a man she describes as “my angel.”
In the following interview Diaz talks about her journey, tracing it back to the university’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which she was able to attend tuition-free for five weeks during the summer of 1997. EOP prepares students in need of academic support for college-level work.
Q. What was going on in your life when you enrolled in EOP? How did you find out about it?
A. I didn’t foresee college in my future. Growing up, my environment was not healthy — there was domestic violence, abuse, Hartford was full of gangs. Although my mother wanted the best for me and knew education was the only way out, I didn’t understand that at the time. My high school guidance counselor exposed me to EOP. He was always looking out for me, telling me I had potential. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of high school and work. But I ended up going and a whole new world opened up for me. I’d never been on a college campus. It immediately clicked with me.
Q. When did you know you wanted to become an educator?
A. I knew I needed to give back, do something purposeful with my life. I didn’t know what subject matter, grade level I would pursue. EOP was significant in helping me understand the requirements to get into Central. I was assigned a mentor, Patricia Gardner, director of the graduate office. She taught me the ropes.
I ended up getting scholarships from my high school — I had the second highest GPA. I was fond of working with clay, making it into something beautiful. I saw it as a metaphor and process for how my life turned out — from that broken kid who felt that the adults had let me down. So, I went on for a BS in art education with a concentration in sculpture. My focus was working with urban kids. I went on to teach at East Hartford Middle School. I was there for 10 years.
Q. How did you arrive at the next step in your education?
A. My job required that I get my Master’s, so I went back after four years, in 2008. I loved teaching and learning, and thought, ‘How can I then expand this experience at a grander level?’ I decided to do a Master’s in educational leadership and went into the six-year program. I did it part-time while teaching, and my mom and mother-in-law helped with the kids.
Q. You started your doctorate in 2011. You said your husband didn’t support your decision to get another degree. Your marriage was falling apart, you were depressed, and your children were struggling. What kept you going?
A. I had a very hard time with the divorce. I had no idea how I was going to be able to do this on my own with just a teacher income. But I’m very spiritual. I always taught my kids, ‘We don’t hold anger; we have to be better people. Out of this we’re going to be fine.’ My kids taught me to be resilient and strong. I began rebuilding myself again. I continued at Central because all my professors were like a family. I called them my academic familia. I knew they’d provide me with support and guidance to overcome challenges.
Q. What advice do you give your students today?
A. I share my story with them, the significant people in my life, and many of my students come to me to vent about unfortunate, traumatic events. I guide them and tell them it doesn’t feel good right now, but you need to look beyond the experiences to what are you going to take away from this.
I try to be an example that it’s never too late to go back to school, never too late to learn.
Q. Where do you see yourself in the future?
A. I would love to be a superintendent of a district. I’m considering the superintendency cohort program (at CCSU). My goal as an administrator is to impact the urban masses. I’m honored and humbled to help my community and work with great educators. I’d also love to write a book for young women — to be an inspiration.