Maria Mansella was born in the small town of Marzano Appio, in the province of Caserta, in the region of Campania, Italy in March 1955. Her family left her native country when she was 11 years old, in search of a better life in the United States. Even though she grew up in a part of Italy with a weak economy, surrounded by devastation even years after World War II, Maria recalls nothing but a childhood full of wonderful memories.
“We owned quite a bit of land. Like chestnut groves. That was sort of the economy. You gathered the chestnuts and sold them and you made money off that. So as a child I didn’t have any hardships. I was a very happy child. I was so excited to come here, I would dream about coming here.”
She was sad to leave behind friends and family in Italy, but was very excited to start a new life in the United States. Her family moved to Rhode Island, because her father’s family lived here. This was very comforting to her. She says because she came to an unfamiliar place, surrounded by family she “never felt alone.”
Maria came to the United States without speaking a word of English. But, she said her love of reading is what helped her learn English. She would read books everyday. “Keep reading, reading, reading. Today, pick up a few words and tomorrow pick up a few more.” Maria felt like her early school experience in the United States was not as good, compared to English speaking students because they didn’t have English as a Second Language (ESL) programs like they do now.
Maria went on to attend Mount Pleasant High School. Although she later graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in education, she did not teach for about ten years because the teaching profession offered few opportunities at that time. Maria spent this time focused on her family. She got married and had two kids. When she was 35 she finally got back into teaching and started to work in the field of ESL. She recalls the best experience of her professional life was being accepted into the ESL program at Brown University, but this is where she also realized the inequalities in education.
Maria hopes today for a future Rhode Island that is one with quality education for all children, from all different backgrounds:
“Education is the great equalizer. I think that’s where everything stems from. From it comes a greater economy, an employable work force. But the reality is that education is inequitable, and that is the challenge for education. How do we make sure that every student has equity and access?”
Today Maria is the ESL Coordinator for the East Providence Public School Department. Her primary goal is to ensure that English Language Learners (ELLs) have access to the same quality education as all other students in the district. Her own experience as an immigrant allows her to connect with her students and their families:
“…People are people all over the world and families are families all over the world. And what most families want is the best for their kids. And that’s the primary reasons why they are here. And so they may not act, meaning immigrants, they may not act in ways that we can identify with. For example, they might not come to school for parent’s night or they may not participate in things we would expect them to. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about their children’s education. Because I think they have paid, in many cases, an enormous price to be here.”
Maria currently resides in Lincoln, Rhode Island with her husband, and is still very proud of her Italian culture. Because she holds her own culture so dear, she is able to understand and accept her students’ different cultural backgrounds and embrace them.
Written and compiled by Mackenzie Logue and Ari Reid