Profile: A Hispanic Mentor for All Students Across New Jersey

Paula Saha | October 29, 2014 | Profiles
Ivonne Díaz-Claisse’s encounter with her own mentor, and her passion for reaching students, are changing young lives across the state

Ivonne Díaz-Claisse
Name: Ivonne Díaz-Claisse

Who she is: Founder and president of HISPA, or Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement, a national institution that finds, organizes, and coaches Hispanic and Latino professionals to speak in schools and act as mentors and role models.

Where she’s coming from: Díaz-Claisse grew up in Puerto Rico with a passion for mathematics. While in college in Puerto Rico, she found a role model in a professor who had also grown up in Puerto Rico and who had just earned a Ph.D. in the subject at an American school.

“It was seeing him, someone from Puerto Rico who had gone to the United States, that made me realize — hmm, maybe I can achieve that,” she said.

Today, Díaz-Claisse holds a masters in engineering in operations research from Cornell University, a masters in mathematics from the University of Maryland, and a Ph.D. in mathematics from Arizona State University.

An aha! moment: While working in data analysis for AT&T, Díaz-Claisse was very active in the company’s Hispanic Employee Resource Group, an organization of Latino professionals who worked for AT&T and supported their members’ professional development.

She recalls being invited to speak to students at middle schools in Red Bank and Newark, seeing the changing demographics of those communities and “realizing that I could really be an example to them.”

In Newark, she remembers one young girl who watched her attentively through her talk, and lingered after. “Now that I met you,” Diaz-Classe recalls her saying, “I know that I will pursue a Ph.D. as well. I am very, very passionate about chemistry.

“I had kids wanting my autograph and all I did was tell my story,” she said. “I thought about all the people I know. If all of us do this together, we can really make a difference.”

Building a network: Díaz-Claisse recalls another moment that further clarified her vision. She was speaking at a conference of Employee Resource Groups hosted by Microsoft and looked out into the audience to see hundreds of Latinos who were working in technology. “With the connections I had there, we could easily have 10,000 people speaking at schools. That was the vision.”

So a few years ago, Díaz-Claisse made the decision to leave AT&T to devote herself to HISPA full time.

Why her work matters: “When you look at public schools in the United States, 25 percent (of students) are of Latino heritage,” she said. “This work is so urgent. It has to be done now. It is very critical for the future of this country that more and more children choose highly skilled professions … not only for the Latino community, it’s for the future of this nation.”

New Jersey and beyond: HISPA works with school districts across the state, including Elizabeth, New Brunswick, Perth Amboy, and Red Bank. In most cases, schools reach out to HISPA and then the organization finds sponsors to fund the work. The agreement with schools is to do six visits over the course of a year, with two different speakers at each visit. Speakers range from sitting mayors to Princeton professors to employees of major corporations.

“We have professionals who are first-generation, second-generation, third-generation Latinos. You’re trying to make sure the kids are identifying themselves with the people coming into the school.” HISPA also hosts annual youth empowerment conferences and has recently expanded to San Antonio, TX, and New York City.

Her pitch for math: “There is no engineering without math; there is no chemistry without math; there is no architecture without math. Medicine, space exploration, there is nothing that doesn’t have math … even deciding the route of a school bus in the morning. It’s everywhere.”

Personal: Díaz-Claisse lives in Skillman, NJ with her husband and two children, 11 and 14.

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