Land of Opportunity, Part II
September 25, 2012
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on highly educated Latino workers in the work force in the South Lake Tahoe community.
Catalina Goralski and Laura Alvarez grew up on opposite ends of Latin America, but moved to South Lake Tahoe just a year apart to start new lives with their husbands. Both worked at Stateline for about a year at minimum wage after leaving lucrative careers in Chile and Mexico. And then their stories diverge.
Goralski came to the basin with a degree in political science from the Universidad Gabriela Mistral in Santiago, Chile. She’d left a government job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture to live with her husband, Ryan, in California. She’d met him while guiding a group of Catholic-school tourists through Patagonia – she was the female guide, he was the male guide – and it wasn’t long before they fell in love, Goralski said.
She wasn’t sure she was ready to leave her country immediately, but after he proposed, she decided it was time for a change and in 2007 they moved to the South Shore, where Ryan taught snowboarding at Heavenly Mountain Resort.
Goralski started work as a cashier at Heavenly, bringing home about $8.50 an hour. It was a whole new life in a brand new country, she said, and she was prepared to work her way up the ladder of opportunity once again.
“I’m a graduate of political science. It was a big change for me, starting from the bottom again. But I worked there for a couple seasons, and from there I came to Lake Tahoe Community College with my resume, saying that I have my degree,” Goralski said.
She also had her language skills. When Goralski arrived in Tahoe, she already spoke both Spanish and English fluently. When she knocked on Sue O’Conner and Maxine Alper’s door at the Intensive Spanish Summer Institute, the directors of the program knew they’d found a gem. The two women were looking for instructors to lead the program’s conversation groups, and Goralski was an obvious choice.
“When she told us her education background and what she’d done in Chile, we thought it was a really good fit as a conversation group leader. At every step she showed the quality she had,” O’Conner said.
O’Conner and Alper accepted Goralski’s degree without requiring her to establish U.S. equivalency through an outside education evaluation service. She left her job at Heavenly and started working part-time with ISSI and as an assistant with a state preschool. She also ran her own tutoring business from her home.
In 2010, she started substitute teaching the conversational classes at the community college. Goralski said she’d take any hours she could collect to build her resume and maintain connections with the school. She also began working with Student Services as the bilingual office assistant.
All the work paid off and a year later, LTCC offered Goralski her own class – Conversational Spanish 141, 142.
“I have a great group of co-workers and I enjoy teaching my language. I love to share my culture inside the classroom and I consider myself very lucky. I am very thankful for all the opportunities that this country gave to me,” Goralski said.
Laura Alvarez arrived in South Lake Tahoe in 2006 with a degree in chemistry from Conalep in Guadalajara, a college that focuses on professional and technical education in Mexico. Her husband, Juan, had moved to the area two years before to take a job in Meyers and Alvarez said it was time to join him in California.
She had been working in production at a carton factory called Boxmart before starting her studies in chemistry. After three years, she secured her science degree and started government work as a technical lab assistant for the Servicio de Informacion Agroalimentaria y Pesquera, or the information system for the agriculture, food and fishery departments in Mexico.
When she moved to Tahoe she started work as a maid in the Stateline casinos. But the work was difficult, and she had a son at home who needed her care. Alvarez quit the job after about six months and though she looked in Tahoe for opportunities to continue her work in chemistry, she didn’t find any openings.
“They won’t give me the opportunity to work here. There weren’t any opportunities even for an internship,” Alvarez said in Spanish.
Part of that is the small-town nature of the basin, she said. The other is that English skills are key to building a successful career in the U.S., and when Alvarez arrived she only spoke Spanish.
Now, Alvarez stays at home caring for her three children – Brandon, 9, Brenda, 4, and Chris, 3. She said she hopes one day the family can return to Guadalajara. Brandon, who was born in the Mexican city, remembers the energy and bustle of his hometown and he wants to go back someday and be a policeman according to his mother.
“If you study, you can work an easier job and earn more. I think there are opportunities to study, to prepare yourself here in the U.S. The GED is free and there are scholarships here,” Alvarez said.
One day, she’d like to move to a larger city where she can once again work with the government in a water-quality department or industrial chemistry, she said, but at the moment the family doesn’t have plans to leave Tahoe.
There’s chemistry work in Tahoe according to Alvarez, but she said she needs to transfer her credits first. And that will take time and money.
For now, Alvarez is focusing on getting a GED and improving her English skills. A job that incorporates her degree will come later. She might have a chemistry license in Mexico, but without the language skills she can’t utilize that portion of her education, she said.
“I want to transfer my credits to study here. I’m looking for scholarships now so I can study and learn English. I can understand English, but it would be easier if I understood more. It’s very hard to find work otherwise,” Alvarez said in Spanish.
Alvarez has also started looking into an education equivalency group based in Sacramento called the Educational Records and Evaluation Service. She said she knows she’ll have to go through an outside agency like ERES before she can continue with her studies or start a new career.
For Goralski, she credits ISSI with giving her the first chance to prove herself and develop a career in the U.S., but she admits the story might have been different if she didn’t speak English when she arrived.
According to Alper, they wouldn’t have hired Goralski even as an ISSI conversational leader if she hadn’t mastered both languages.
“She did things and we saw more and more of her educational abilities. But the English-level is very important to us. We really do want them to by fairly bilingual,” Alper said.
Her story might also have been different if she was applying for the same job today. LTCC Director of Human Resources Susan Walter said that in the past four years the state has cracked down on the minimum qualifications a community college instructor needs in order to teach, and in most cases that would be a master’s degree from a U.S. university or an established equivalent degree.
Now, someone like Goralski looking to teach at a California community college who doesn’t have a master’s degree would need to submit their resume to an equivalency committee that would determine whether they were suitable for hire.
“We have to meet certain standards and the state is getting really rigorous with those standards. Our processes have changed, but they’re fair. The review is more stringent,” Walter said.
Goralski said she’s aiming to start her master’s studies in Spanish this January at the University of Nevada, Reno. For the first time she will have to transfer the credits she received in Chile, a service that UNR offers. She said she’s waiting to hear back from the university, but thinks she has enough credits to go straight to graduate school.
It’s taken a lot of luck to get where she is now, Gorlaski said, but it’s also taken a lot of work. Mostly, she just feels fortunate to be able to continue the work she loves in a beautiful place.
“I think in life you’ve got to put the work in, no matter where you’re from. If you have the will power to do something, you will do it. I’m very thankful for the world language department, for the administrators here. I’m the other side of the story. Lake Tahoe, it welcomed me,” she said.
“But I think if I didn’t know the language, the story could be different,” Goralski said.