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Reform, Reorganize, and Regenerate: Salina Villegas, PSP'21

The Intellectual Contribution Award recipient for Prevention Science and Practice reflects on her time at HGSE and looks toward the future.
Salina Villegas

Salina Villegas: " For me, this was the perfect setup because my Zoom background was a gallery wall of my family (two kids and partner) and I was situated in a place in my home where I could see/hear everything my two babies were doing while I was in school."

Photo courtesy of Salina Villegas

The Intellectual Contribution Award recognizes 12 Ed.M. students (one from each Ed.M. program) whose dedication to scholarship enhanced HGSE’s academic community and positively affected fellow students. Salina Villegas will be honored with the Intellectual Contribution Award for Prevention Science and Practice (PSP) at HGSE's Virtual Commencement on May 27.

Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, faculty director of PSP, comments on Villegas' selection: “Salina has been a core member of the PSP community this year, and I am not the least bit surprised that her peers nominated her for the Intellectual Contribution Award. Salina brings years of experience and insights to her work, as well as a deep sense of purpose and humility. Her voice is powerful and has meaningfully shaped learning spaces this year, often helping to recenter communities and young people in our dialogue. Like so many of our PSP students, Salina is willing to ask hard questions and brings her full self to class discussions. Her peers describe her as 'fierce' and 'honest' and appreciate how much she models 'vulnerability.' Salina has brought so much to the PSP community, while simultaneously giving to her family and community — she’s truly a gift to our field.”

We spoke to Villegas about her time at HGSE, her future plans, and how the pandemic has changed the education landscape:

What does this photo mean to you?  

If folks shared a meeting or class with me, chances are I was sitting right here at my dining room table. For me, this was the perfect setup because my Zoom background was a gallery wall of my family (two kids and partner) and I was situated in a place in my home where I could see/hear everything my two babies were doing while I was in school. This a pretty picture of what that might have looked like, but trust that there were many “camera off” moments because I was dealing with competing responsibilities.

I was also pretty consistent with one particular pair of gold hoop earrings throughout the year. They are a symbol of my roots in hip-hop and Latinx culture as a child born to young parents in 1990. My gold hoop earrings — thick, thin, bamboo-style, big, or small — are an extension of my personality along with my desire to personify unity, infinity, and wholeness. I feel it was this representation of womanhood, oppression, freedom, resistance, and reclamation that shaped the way I was received by others while attending HGSE. After all, you know what they say: the bigger the hoops, the bigger the ... blessings!

In this year of remote learning, what were some of the ways you were able to connect with your peers?

Something I saw as both a challenge and the silver lining of online learning was the raw exposure of how our home environments have everything to do with how we show up in the classroom. There were days, weeks, and months that were just hard. And it didn’t have to be some catastrophic event — though those were definitely happening around me — but the idea that each of us in a zoom square was also dealing with life while inside/outside that zoom square became that much more apparent. I valued the ways professors, TAs, and my colleagues honored this piece and allowed space for us/me to not have our cameras on or delegated time in the schedule to just breathe.

Also, there was a handful of us that kept a WhatsApp group active and I found that to be a special way for us to stay connected when each of us found the time and space to do so. We were able to organize a gift exchange during the holidays, remind folks whether or not there was class, give kudos to the gems that were being dropped in class, encourage one another during finals week, check in about national news occurrences, and receive save-the-date wedding invitations!

Is there any professor or class that significantly shaped your experience at the Ed School?

Yes! Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Josephine Kim, Neena McConnico, and Houman Harouni.

These professors contributed so much love, light, and leadership to my journey at HGSE. I came to Harvard with a desire to show up fully, to practice having a healthy sense of self, and to struggle productively. It was their personhood and classroom dynamics that made way for me to live out this dream. They showed up and out for their students in impeccable ways (especially in a pandemic)! Whether it was care packages in the mail, mindfulness activities before a lecture or moments of raw honesty, these moments of nutrients really embodied the impact community care has on an individual’s self-care journey. I especially appreciated the parents who did not shy away from 1) featuring their babies on screen with them and 2) affirming that “this is hard” when parenthood + Harvard life got to be a lot.

Lastly, the EDU T410D: Toward Healing Centered Engagement in Classrooms, Schools, and Communities class with Dr. Christina Villarreal! Attending graduate school virtually during a pandemic meant that we were (and I was) experiencing such volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. Dr. V was intentional about creating and maintaining a space where students could dream and reimagine what mindfulness and health look like for Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities when it is not being commodified to classist culture. The T410D class was both a compassionate and critical space where heartwork (and hard work) was in practice and folks could just be.

What are your post-HGSE plans?

I have big plans to integrate my learning with my everyday experiences at home as a mother, partner, worker, community member, and human. It is really important for me to bring what is “out there” (institutionally) to the people and places that are “in here” (personally) so that I can live, breathe, and be in practice of the work. To me, this means always and already making myself available to being held accountable for the ways I might not be operating from a place of oneness and wellness. It also means balancing the wisdom of the collective just as much (if not more) than institutional knowledge.

Currently, I am the director of leadership programs for a nonprofit called RISE San Diego. My plans in this role are to continue taking a systems-thinking approach to the ways we think about, exercise, welcome, resist, and celebrate leadership in urban neighborhoods. I manage our Urban Leadership Fellows Program and I am excited at the likelihood of extending our programming to local youth and college students.

"The pandemic did not do much to shift my views of education. To be honest, it affirmed what I think most of us already knew and that was that inequality is a thing and that thing has not been dealt with (really); maybe on paper but not in practice."

All in all, my plans after HGSE are to align my professional and ancestral gifts to maintain my practice of exploring biological, personal, and cultural dimensions. I look forward to any and all opportunities that will make room for radical designing, dreaming, and delivering of community-change efforts.

What is something that you learned this year that you will take with you throughout your career in education?

I took MLD 202A: Leadership from the Inside Out with Ronald Heifetz at the Harvard Kennedy School and there was an experiential component of the course that called for each student to evaluate their personal and professional failures. I really appreciated the opportunity to do this from a place of curiosity and not shame. These moments of deep introspection (coupled with the psychological impact of the pandemic) helped shed light on some of the shadows that linger in my being.

I am taking this with me on my journey because I feel as educators it is important to become familiar with our stories (or the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves). For me, this process made it so that I could confront the ways in which my hunger for validation and importance gets exaggerated in my work and how in doing so I can replicate the harm I work so hard to dismantle. I learned how to meet and greet my disappointments, lack of accountability, and ego with grace and compassion. I look forward to doing more of this heartwork in my career — taking responsibility for the things I can control and not hiding behind excuses — and modeling what that looks/feels/sounds like for others.

How has the pandemic shifted your views of education? 

The pandemic did not do much to shift my views of education. To be honest, it affirmed what I think most of us already knew and that was that inequality is a thing and that thing has not been dealt with (really); maybe on paper but not in practice.

While in quarantine, I kept thinking about this one kid my son and I would run into on our way to dropping him off at pre-K. Every morning, this little boy would get chastised by his father. “What are you, stupid?” … “You’re going to get it when you get home.” … “ Ugh, c’mon I am tired of dealing with you.” And after his father would leave, this little boy would act up in class exhibiting all types of behavioral issues. Once we transitioned from in-person to virtual learning, I would catch glimpses of this little boy on Zoom and his camera would almost never be on. This pulled at my heart every day because I was caught between the tension of we are not doing enough and what else can we do to support parents and students’ physical and emotional wellbeing before/during/after the pandemic.

Also, if there was any doubt, the pandemic really reminded us all 1) how important it is for parents and caregivers to support their child’s learning and 2) just how much influence a teacher can have on a child’s learning. It moved me to better understand and appreciate the creative ways teachers were nurturing the relationship between students, parents, and teachers. I would love to see the collective continue to advocate for education as a socially valued career and work to increase the salaries of our educators. We know that teachers have a huge impact on a student’s life and we need to honor the ways they show up (at an unheard-of pace) for their students.

I still worry about the students I know that lacked internet access, ample supply of food at home, and a supportive/loving home environment. And let’s not forget the teachers who were also parents and parents who lost their jobs because of the closure of schools and businesses. I worry that the system will only come up with technical solutions to these ongoing adaptive problems.

The reality of it is, pandemic or not, people are suffering from systemic inequality and we have been given a number of opportunities to do something about it. I guess if any of my views have changed it is in how fast our country can come up with and implement solutions if/when we really want to. I see this happening every day at the grassroots level and will spend the rest of my life forever pushing for my country, state, and city to reform, reorganize, and regenerate how we educate our students.