Executive Spotlight: Michelle Lopez, executive director, Berkshire Immigrant Center
PITTSFIELD — If you're looking on a map for Michelle Lopez's hometown in the Catskills, you probably won't find it. Greenville, N.Y., is that tiny, she says. Cultural diversity in a town of slightly fewer than 4,000 residents is more of a concept than a reality.
Yet, reading about other cultures while growing up in Greenville led Lopez to a career in international education, and from there to her current position as executive director of the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield.
We spoke with Lopez recently about her interest in international education, why she applied for her current position last year and what it's like to go to school in Cuba.
Q: Tell me about your background.
A: I was originally working in international education, helping students at U.S. universities study abroad, mostly in Latin America. I led a program for the Institute of Studying Abroad in Cuba for four years, helping students from U.S. universities acclimate to Cuban living, finding host families while they were taking classes at the University of Havana and taking them around the island.
Q: I didn't know American students could study in Cuba.
A: Yes, they have a study-abroad program. ... I studied, myself, at the University of Havana when I was an undergrad (at SUNY-New Paltz), and I really fell in love with it. It felt very special back in 2010, because there were very few U.S. students studying at the University of Havana. You had to go through special placement listings before the Obama administration really opened things up.
Q: What is school like in Cuba?
A: The University of Havana only allows U.S. students to study there for a semester. It was very nerve-wracking.
Probably the biggest thing that stood out is that all of your grades are announced in class in front of your classmates and they're posted in the lobby of the department you're studying in. ... It's social education, socialism. Everyone knows everyone else's grades. The hope is that you will help your fellow students study and do better next time. But, I was very embarrassed.
In the end, I struggled because Cuban Spanish is a different dialect. Everybody speaks very quickly and drops the ends of all their words. My first two months in the country, my books were filled with drawings and scribbles every two or three weeks with a word that I could understand.
Q: You grew up in a rural part of New York. So, where did this interest in international education come from?
A: I was just fascinated with all the different cultures we were learning in our social studies/history classes. So, I got a letter in the mail when I was like 12 years old, from a student program which was started by (former President Dwight) Eisenhower's daughter, I believe. It basically invites middle school and high school students to go on different programs abroad for a few weeks each summer.
I worked to get the money to pay for it. I had been to Mexico and Canada with my family but had never been over the pond, so to speak.
Q: Where did you go?
A: I went to Spain, France, Italy and Monaco. It was only three weeks long, so, it was pretty whirlwind. ... I didn't speak another language at that point, but everyone I came in contact with was willing to help. ... This work, I feel, is a way for me to give back to all the people in the world that have been so compassionate to me in their home country.
Q: Why did you take the job at the Berkshire Immigrant Center?
A: I was working at Brandeis [University] in international education and I was searching through Facebook one day to see how I could get involved with the international community outside of Boston.
I came across the MIRA [Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy] Coalition's [the immigrant center's fiscal sponsor] Facebook page. And they had posted my predecessor Brooke Mead's farewell letter. I didn't know Brooke. I didn't know the Berkshires. But, her letter was so moving that it was like, "I've only been at Brandeis for six months, but I've got to apply for this job."
Q: How many countries do you have clients from?
A: Right now, we have about 80 different countries. ... The largest amount is from Latin America. The second-biggest constituency is from Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Back when we started [in 1997], it was mainly Eastern European.
Q: What are the major issues that the Berkshire immigrant community is facing right now?
A: Right now, it's definitely finding jobs, keeping jobs and keeping the hours. They've been able to increase the hours now because the economy has been slowly opening back up.
But, it's difficult, because I think most people don't understand that immigrants, not only in the Berkshires, but everywhere, are supporting their families here and they're also supporting their families back home and many of their families back home are living in developing countries where COVID is also a huge factor.
Q: How have the Trump administration's policies affected immigration locally?
A: Probably the greatest factor has been the attack on the USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) offices, so, funding for the USCIS is only provided by the fees that they charge for the applications,
The application fees are going up in October. ... The USCIS is furloughing thousands of people, so, all the applications that are usually filled within a few months are now taking double or triple the amount of time.
Q: So, how does that affect immigrants?
A: They can't their green cards. ... The IRS stimulus checks are only for people who have Social Security numbers, so, those who have been waiting on their green cards or adjustment in status aren't able to be helped by the stimulus checks.
Q: There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the year regarding how crucial participation from the immigrant community would be in the 2020 federal census so that an area like the Berkshires that continues to lose population would receive the right amount of funding. Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot of the plans for outreach. How has that affected the participation from the immigrant community so far?
A: Luckily, we've seen good completion numbers in central Berkshire County, which is where the majority of our clients live. We're still struggling to reach those in South County. They're much smaller, and rural communities and our offices are, obviously, farther away. ... We're hoping that by the end of October we'll be able to social distance and visit those who are living in South County.
Q: Your husband is from Cuba. Did you meet him there?
A: Yes, we met through a mutual friend, someone I had been friends with as a student in 2010.
She introduced us when I started living there in 2015. ... He's a green card holder right now. In two years, he'll be able to take the citizenship tests. His English is proficient, but I'm quite the enabler, and we only speak Spanish at home.
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