Fourth in a series of profiles of this year's Cedar Valley Business Monthly 20 under 40 winners.
CEDAR FALLS | If you looked up the word “diversity” in the dictionary, you might find a photo of Tabatha Cruz.
Hired as program coordinator for the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Multicultural Education in 2010, she knows what it’s like being a stranger in a strange land -- and rising to the occasion through her professional skills, her engaging personality and a supportive family.
A native of the Bronx, N.Y., in New York City, she was raised from infancy by adoptive Puerto Rican parents who were older when they adopted her. After 40 years, her father retired and they moved back to Puerto Rico. She was 8.
“I went from an all-English environment to all Spanish, which was very difficult,” Cruz said. “I picked up on Spanish pretty quickly. I remember on my first report card I got a ‘B’ in Spanish class and my mom said. ‘That’s great. But next time, make it an ‘A’ “
At age 16, her parents, then in their early 70s, encountered health issues and moved to San Antonio, Texas, to be near her sister. It made for another cultural challenge.
“South Texas has a very large Hispanic population, but totally different nationalities. There are a lot of Mexicans, so here I am, my parents being Puerto Rican, and trying to fit in,” she said. “People think Spanish is the same all across the board and it’s not. Depending on what country you’re from or from what region the dialects change. I would talk in my words and my slang, and people would look at me funny. That was hard.”
She attended Palo Alto Community College in San Antonio. She was looking to extend her education beyond junior college, and a counselor made her aware of a scholarship program to go to a school at UNI, with which Palo Alto had a relationship.
The counselor cautioned her it was quite a distance away. “I said, ‘Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Go away to college and grow up?’ He was like, ‘Well, Tabatha, it’s really cold up there.’ I said, ‘Hey, I’m from New York! I have tough skin! I can wear a jacket!’ He said ‘Well, Tabatha it’s in Iowa.’ I said ‘Where is that?’ He said ‘You know where Chicago is? It’s right by that.’ I said ‘Sign me up!’”
She broke the news gently to her parents. Her mother was concerned about her “baby” leaving the nest and moving so far away. But with the help of her sister, her folks came around to the idea.
“I was very thankful. I took the chance and ran with it,” she said. After graduating at UNI -- the first college graduate in her family -- she received a master’s degree at Illinois State University at Normal, Ill. After which she was hired in her present position at UNI.
“I feel I have a responsibility to give back to UNI, because it gave me so much,” she said. “I’m very thankful for the people I met along the way who gave me this opportunity to be here.”
Part of Cruz’s job is to promote understanding among the diverse groups that make up the university. A former resident hall assistant herself, she’s worked on that from the dorm floors on up with diversity training.
She also emphasized that the Center for Multicultural Education at Maucker Union is for everyone, as students she meets during her sorority advising and other capacities have learned when they visit.
“Students feel very comfortable coming to my office. They say ‘I’ve never been to the multicultural center. I didn’t know I could be in here because I’m not a multicultural person.’ And I say, ‘You have culture! White is not the absence of color.’”
UNI faculty member and campus American Democracy Project chairperson Gerri Perrault, who nominated Cruz for the 20 Under 40 recognition, called Cruz “a person of character, competence and professionalism who is dedicated to making the world a better place to live.”