By Cass Doherty
Sonya Diaz, the chief academic officer for the Framingham Public Schools, moved to New York, New York from Puerto Rico at the age of five.
Her mother worked as a seamstress, and neither Diaz nor her mother spoke any English. “I remember in kindergarten, I couldn’t understand a word of what was happening,” she said.
“Until the second grade, when I woke up one morning and actually knew the difference between the words ‘can’ and ‘can’t.’ ... I had no idea what was going on until that wonderful day, when all of the language fell into place,” said Diaz, adding that beforehand, all of the words sounded the same to her.
She added, “By the time I was in fourth grade, I knew more words in English than my mother would know in her lifetime.”
It was her fourth grade teacher who saw “something special” in her and encouraged her to explore “new and fascinating worlds in literature as I became a fluent reader,” she said.
Diaz, along with five other women, was honored at FSU’s second annual Women Making History Now award ceremony on Wednesday in honor of Women’s History Month.
The ceremony celebrated six women who have made “significant impacts and contributions to the communities that they serve,” said Chon’tel Washington, director of the Center of Inclusive Excellence and the event’s emcee.
The six nominees were Attorney General Maura Healey, Chief of Staff and General Counsel Rita Colucci, Chief Academic Officer for the Framingham Public Schools Sonya Diaz, Vice President of the Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce (HACC) and Senior Care Products Account Executive for Fallon Health Sylvia Ruiz, Executive Director of MetroWest Visitors Bureau Susan Nicholl and the women of the South Middlesex County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.
The event was co-sponsored by M.I.S.S.
Amari Veale, a junior and president of M.I.S.S., introduced the South Middlesex chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and presented their award. Veale provided the sorority’s background and described the South Middlesex chapter’s determination to implement the sorority’s Five Point Programmatic Thrust into the community.
Veale said the chapter has 46 members and is known as “the Small Chapter with the Big Heart,” adding they compensate with their civic engagement and social advocacy programming.
Roxann C. Cooke, chapter president and Veale’s mentor, accepted the award on behalf of the sorority.
Cooke said of Veale, “When I met this dynamo ... when we sat down and she talked about her passion, and her conviction, and all the things she did on campus, I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is our future.’”
She said whenever the sorority goes out into the community, people say, “Those are the ladies in red. Those are the ladies who give a new meaning to the word ‘sorority.’ It’s not just a social organization.”
Cooke said the sorority is “advocacy in action.”
She added the sorority’s Arst public act after its founding was the women’s suffrage march.
“Fast forward 104 years, and we still need to make history now. It is more so important than it was a 104 years ago and there is so much we need to do,” said Cooke.
Junior Jace Williams introduced Healey and described her work with residents across Massachusetts, including the heroin and prescription drug abuse epidemic, health care costs, workers’ rights and student loan costs.
“I’m extremely honored to be presenting this award to Ms. Healey, who made history when she was elected, as she is the first openly gay State Attorney General. She is an inspiration to myself and other LGBTQ students,” said Williams.
Healey was unable to attend the ceremony, and Assistant Attorney General Mary Strother accepted on her behalf, saying she was honored.
Strother said, “Empowering women in the commonwealth is a really important issue, and is essential to the work of our office.”
Estefania Mangue, a senior, introduced Colucci and described her 25 years of experience as an attorney and her current role at FSU.
Colucci said, “As women, we tend to shy away from the limelight. We put others before ourselves, and we tend to minimize our contributions and our achievements.”
She added, “Most of us would not be where we are today without the love and support of our moms,” and shared how her mother had set the example of hard work, dedication and “living your life with values.”
Junior Monet Johnson introduced Diaz and shared her work with both Framingham and Dracut public schools.
“Dr. Diaz has always focused on identifying the best teaching and learning opportunities for all students, focusing her energies on equity and excellence,” said Johnson.
Diaz said she was “deeply honored and humbled to be receiving recognition from Framingham State University.”
She said she had always wanted to “make a difference. Whether as a Arst-grade teacher at the Rafael Hernandez School in Boston, as the lecturer at Boston College, as superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, or in my current position ... my main goal has been to make a difference.”
Diaz shared how education changed her life, and said her mantra was to “help students understand that education will transform their lives, as it did mine.”
Kenetra Hinkins, a senior, introduced Ruiz and described her work helping senior citizens with limited access to financial resources and pay for the medical care they need, as well as her work with non-profit organizations.
Ruiz said she recalled the morning Sean Huddleston, chief officer of diversity, inclusion and community engagement, told her she would be receiving the award. “I was filled with such emotion,” said
Ruiz, “and felt so honored I’d been given the opportunity to stand here in front of you.
“Have you heard the phrase, ‘Being at the right place at the right time?’ For some of us, it’s an
opportunity that presents itself. We must be the ones who are ready to act when they do,” said Ruiz.
She said for her, it was finding the HACC. She added it has changed her life in “more ways than one.”
Ruiz said through the HACC, she had the opportunity to meet “many women leaders” who impacted both her career and personal life, and who have “become great friends.”
Freshman Hannah Jones introduced and presented Nicholl with her award. Jones described Nicholl’s work bringing together people and organizations to strengthen communities.
Nicholl said it was “really something” to be one of the honorees and presented with the award.
She also shared a story about her father and his friendship with a prisoner in a maximum security prison in Illinois. Recently, the family celebrated her father’s 90th birthday, and the former inmate had driven down to be part of the celebration. Decades later, they were “still together, and they can’t believe they’ve reached this milestone together.”
She said when signing up for a commitment, “You never really know how much impact that’s going to have ... You are all making history now.”
At the end of the ceremony, Huddleston presented Phenomenal Woman Award winner Professor Lisa Eck with the FSU Beacon award.
The Beacon Award is given to FSU members who make “noteworthy contributions” that advance inclusive excellence at the University.
Huddleston said he was excited to honor the “women who are making history now.”
He said the idea behind the event was to pay homage to people who are “making a difference today, whether in their careers, professions, certainly in our community and in all of our lives. This was our opportunity to do so.”
Huddleston added that four of the six honorees from last year’s event were in attendance – Chief Philanthropy O2cer for Tri-County United Way Jen Maseda, Massachusetts State Sen. Karen E. Spilka, Executive Director of Leadership MetroWest Helen Lemoine and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs for FSU Linda Vaden-Goad.
The event also featured a musical performance by Josée Vachon-Cevallos.
President F. Javier Cevallos said, “It is so nice to have an event that recognizes the achievements ... of women making history, making history a reality and changing all lives for the better. We have women making history today and women making history tomorrow, and changing things for the better for everyone.”
Cevallos said a few days prior to the event, he had been listening to classical music created by women.
“They devoted an entire day to music composed by women from the 17th century,” he said, “and I was so ashamed that I didn’t know the composers. I thought, ‘How come I haven’t heard this music before? What is wrong with our society that I haven’t been able to be educated better about all those women composers?’”
He said he made himself a promise to listen to more classical music composed by women because he felt it was important.
Cevallos added everyone should learn more about the contributions “women have made for the world.”