Given the academic pressures today’s youngsters have to begin dealing with fairly early on in their lives, it’s rare to hear anyone say that they don’t just enjoy learning, but also that they’d like their quest for knowledge to never end.
25-year-old Diana Catalina Castellanos, a Katonah resident says that. “I hope never to stop studying,” she says swooning with palpable delight.
Speaking in a voice that carries the characteristic chirpiness of a happy child, Diana explains, she has a solid reason to feel that way. “When you don’t have it for many years, you really know how to appreciate it when you get it,” she says.
“It” refers to education, an opportunity that many in this country and others too, enjoy. Diana did as well—but only till fifth grade.
Born in 1983, in Bogota, Columbia, she was refused admission to middle school by authorities on grounds that it’d be difficult for them to accommodate a wheelchair-bound student in class.
Severed from school at the tender age of 10, she ceased to have a systematic and sustained contact with the world of books after that—one that wouldn’t be revived until the age of 18.
Unable to attend school, Diana remained confined to her home for seven long years. Regular home schooling wasn’t an option her parents could explore, for they didn’t have the financial resources to hire a private tutor.
But this period of imposed intellectual exile didn’t go completely wasted. During this time, she read some and wrote a little in Spanish.
But more importantly, it gave her an opportunity to be a doting aunt who, on occasion, doubled up as a nanny, taking care of her little niece, she says.
In 1999, her father came to the U.S. in search of a job. Having succeeded in doing that, he invited his wife to join him the next year. And in 2001, Diana, who’d never ventured farther than her home, took a giant step: she traveled to a new continent, to America.
A new arrival on a foreign soil, whose language she neither spoke nor understood, she felt like a fish out of water. Separation from her extended family and the lack of friends only intensified her sense of bewilderment.
“One time, when I had gone to New York City with my parents, I was scared because we didn’t know what we’d do if we got lost in such a huge city. None of us spoke a word of English. I said to myself that I’d have to learn it,” she says.
Help that would eventually assist her to pick up the language came from a Somers-based family, where her mother did a babysitting job. When they learned of Diana’s school-deprived past, the kindly employers suggested that she join John Jay High School.
“My mom’s boss did all the paperwork [needed for the admission],” Diana says.
She enrolled at the school district only to find out that it didn’t have program suited to her needs. Her lack of a rudimentary knowledge of English came in the way of her taking classes there.
So, she headed for the local technical school, the Putnam/Northern Westchester Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, where she would renew her long-forgotten association with formal education.
Elizabeth Plunkett, Diana’s first English as Second Language teacher at B.O.C.E.S., shares her impressions of the then-coy teen: “When she came to my class seven years ago, she was this timid little girl, who wouldn’t even eat lunch in front of the other students.”
Little by little, Diana’s fear of the unknown and initial pangs of isolation dissipated like camphor tablets under the Sun. Confidence begets courage. Even caliber, at times. Encouraged by her successes, she felt emboldened to take on a bigger class load.
“She’d take a class and want to know, ‘what else can I study”? says Mrs. Plunkett. She describes Diana as an “excellent” pupil, who was “a role model for the other students.”
At B.O.C.E.S., she was immersed in a rigorous vocational English program, with two-hour lessons each day. Typically, students at technical schools went back to their district high school for their doze of other classes like history, science, geography, etc. Diana wasn’t in a position to do that, unlike her classmates.
“When I learned that Diana was only enrolled in my E.S.L. class and not in any classes at John Jay High School, I had a few meetings with her father. In my broken Spanish and his broken English, we discussed the other opportunities she could have at the B.O.C.E.S. tech center,” says Mrs. Plunkett.
So, while Diana’s E.S.L. classes were running at full-swing, they were blended with a mix of other courses—clerical, floriculture, commercial art, business, and computer skills.
Diana says she had to put in twice as many hours as the others, English being her Achilles’ heel. However, the long hours of toil, a gritty determination to succeed, and an unwavering tenacity paid off rich dividends. She was inducted into the National Vocational Honor Society and went to Syracuse to attend a state-level competition.
She earned her General Educational Development credits—a clutch of tests that certifies the taker has American high school-level academic skills—in 2004.
Westchester Community College was the next halt in her journey, from where she’s graduating this May, with an associate degree in visual arts and a certificate in web development.
But she isn’t planning on packing away her books just yet. She’s set her sights on pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York at Purchase.
Speaking through a translator, Flor Castellanos, her proud mother said, “I feel privileged to be Diana’s mother.” Any guesses as to who the translator might be?