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A Way to Be of Use

Ines Lucia Cifuentes '75

It wasn't until I arrived at Swarthmore that I began to feel at home in this country. Some details about my childhood and family may help explain why.

I am the daughter of an Ecuadorian father and a North American mother from the Bronx. I grew up acutely aware of the powerful effects of race, ethnicity, and class, and the consequent inequities and injustices. My father was one of the early economists in Ecuador. My mother, Lucy Axelbank '45, attended Swarthmore on a scholarship at a time when there weren't many other Jews at the College. She majored in economics and later went to work at the Economic Commission for Latin America in Santiago, Chile. My parents met in Quito, where she was part of a mission to conduct the first economic study of Ecuador, and my father (who worked at the Central Bank) had been assigned to assist. Seven months later, they married and went to England, where my father studied at the London School of Economics-and where I was born. Before I began to speak or walk, I moved with my parents to Quito.

In Quito, I was the princess of the Cifuentes household, being the first grandchild. In less than two years, however, I was dethroned by the birth of my brother, Luis Cifuentes '78. From Ecuador we moved to Asuncin, Paraguay, where I learned Guaran and attended kindergarten. After two years there, we moved to Santiago, where I learned to read and write in both Spanish and English. A month after our arrival, the great Chilean earthquake of 1960 occurred. We felt it in Santiago and a year later visited Concepcin, where I could see its effects-the coast had been lifted by about a meter. The earthquake was an event that had a profound impact on my educational and professional life. My study of it eventually, in 1988, became the topic of my Ph.D. thesis at Columbia University.

From Chile we moved to Guatemala, where my father worked with a former classmate from the London School of Economics, Alberto Fuentes Mohr, on a development program for Central America. There, I came into my own. I shed my cloak of shyness, had lots of friends, and was one of the best students. We left Guatemala City at the end of 1965 for Washington, D.C., just as the guerrillas were moving in and the violence that engulfed the country over the next decades was becoming established. Fourteen years later, Alberto Fuentes Mohr was assassinated by paramilitary forces.

I attended public schools in Montgomery County, Md. There weren't many students who looked like me at Kensington Junior High School-at that time, the school district was about 70 percent white. One day, in gym class, the teacher ordered me to take off my nylons. I had to tell her that I wasn't wearing any-it was the color of my skin. She didn't apologize, and I was devastated. I retreated into my studies and into books that were written in Spanish or French. I yearned for Latin America and planned to return to live and work there.

Then, in 1971, I arrived at Swarthmore. I reveled in the exchange of ideas in my classes, over meals, and late at night in our rooms. I remember sitting over dinners in Sharples with David Sacks '76 while we told each other Greek myths; listening to Danny Allen '79, as he stared at his hands, telling me about his grandmother and how he didn't feel at home in this country, where he and his ancestors had been born; hearing jazz for the first time; watching Denise Dennis '72 act the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in McCabe.

I loved being in a place where ideas mattered. Ken Mills, a visiting professor who taught Marxist philosophy, challenged our ideas, forced us to grapple with the way we lived our lives, and questioned the nature of our relationships-between professors and students, between men and women, between those of us who studied at the College and those who worked there. I recall an attempt to unionize the women who cleaned our rooms and the men who cleaned the rest of the College buildings-most of whom were African American-and being struck by what one of the men said at a meeting. He told us simply that he wanted to be treated with respect, to be acknowledged as a person.

At the age of 7 or 8, when I was living in Chile, I had decided that I wanted to become an astronomer, and so I majored in physics at Swarthmore and took astrophysics courses at Haverford. I was intrigued by black holes, the nature of the universe, and cosmology, but I found that I do not have the kind of mathematical mind that is needed to uncover more about the universe. Earthquakes still fascinated me, and Professor Paul Mangelsdorf '49 suggested that I consider do-ing graduate work in earth science. He recommended that I apply to schools where I could study both earth science and astrophysics. I entered the Geophysics Department at Stanford University in 1976 after a summer spent in Mexico City researching the Mexicanization Law with Professor Ken Sharpe of Swarthmore. This experience convinced me that political science could be just as esoteric as astrophysics and reinforced my determination to continue in science while seeking a way to be of use to people in Latin America.

While I was struggling with the questions about what I wanted to do and become, I wrote to several of my parents' friends in Latin America and asked them for advice. Alberto Fuentes Mohr showed the letter to an Argentinean friend and physicist. He said: "Tell her it doesn't matter what she does as long as she does it well. She will find a way to be of use." He was right.

I now direct the Carnegie Academy for Science Education (CASE). In 1989, when Maxine Frank Singer '52 became president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, she opened a Saturday science school for elementary-age children from two neighborhood public schools. The children at the First Light School, as it was called, began to do better in their schools, and some of the Latino students began to speak in English. One of the principals and some parents asked Maxine whether Carnegie could teach their schools' teachers to teach in this way, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) invited Maxine to submit a proposal. It was December 1992, and I had run out of funds to continue my research on large earthquakes. Vera Rubin, a Carnegie astronomer and a wonderful mentor of many young scientists, suggested that Maxine get in touch with me. I wrote the proposal to NSF, and we established CASE in December 1993.

For 10 years, we have provided the only sustained high-quality professional development in science and mathematics available to public school elementary teachers in the District of Columbia. We have nurtured a group of mentor teachers who excel in our program, love to teach science and mathematics, and are committed to their students. They are proof to other teachers that students in D.C. public schools can excel academically when their teachers have high expectations of them and are committed to their academic success. They and the children are the reason I have stayed in this job, even though it is not what I ever imagined I would be doing at this stage of my life and is the most difficult work I have ever done.

Over the years, Swarthmore students have interned at CASE during the summer.  Jennifer Lee '98, Victor Pineiro '00, Karman Mak '00, and Naamal De Silva '00-from four different cultural backgrounds-all carry inside them the desire to use their talents and education to make the world a better place. I don't know exactly how it happens-whether it is the students who apply to Swarthmore; the College's selection process; or the ethos of high intellectual demands, with responsibility to others, nurtured by professors for whom the teaching of young people is a passion. All I know is that these factors have conjoined to bring forth many of us who cannot accept things as they are and are working to change them for the better.

Ines Cifuentes, a seismologist, is the director of the Carnegie Institution's Carnegie Academy for Science Education.