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‘She takes care of me like I’m family.’

Sonia Silva is a mentor and a champion for CSUB’s international students

 

 

Portrait of Sonia Silva

Sonia Silva, CSUB director of international students and programs, and treasurer of the CSUB Alumni Association, poses in front of the motel outside McFarland where she lived and worked as a child.

By CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

The life of an international student at CSUB is full of opportunity – and fraught with peril.

Marijuana may be legal in California, but an international student caught using it could lose his visa. A student who offers a cash bribe to a police officer pulling him over – common practice in some countries – could land in far more trouble than a speeding ticket.

And some students don’t understand the western ways of dating, that an American young woman is probably just interested in some fun, not an immediate marriage proposal.

Fortunately these students have a teacher and an advocate in Sonia Silva, CSUB’s director of international students and programs. She welcomes foreign students to campus, keeps them in compliance with immigration law and helps them adapt to life here.

“I would say once a term we have somebody that’s heartbroken because they don’t understand how dating works in the U.S., especially those in the younger age range,” she said. “I’m explaining that in the United Sates, dating is really not with the intent of getting married, it’s just hanging out.”

The job is a perfect fit for Silva, who has an international background of her own and a major itch for travel. She’s the daughter of a Portuguese father and Taiwanese mother and grew up in the northern Kern County town of McFarland, which is predominantly Latino.

Silva seems to always have an international trip coming up. In the last year she’s been to the United Kingdom, Belgium and the Netherlands.  One of the best things about her job, she says, is that she gets to learn about foreign ways of life even when she’s in Bakersfield – through her students.

“We get to travel around the world from the comforts of our office,” Silva said.

WORKING SINCE 7

Silva jokes she was made in Taiwan, raised in the USA and privileged to study abroad in preschool. Her parents met in Taiwan when her father was stationed there for the Air Force and then moved to Santa Barbara County before divorcing when Silva was 4.

Sonia Silva as a child in Taiwan

Silva as a young girl in Changhua, Taiwan. She jokes she studied abroad when she attended preschool in Taiwan, her mother's home country. Outspoken then and now, Silva would repeatedly get in trouble for pointing out her Taiwanese preschool teacher was mispronouncing some English words.

Her mother’s family bought a motel, restaurant and gas station at Highways 99 and 46 outside McFarland, and Silva worked alongside them there.

She pumped gas. She cleaned motel rooms. She worked in the mini mart. She made sure the swimming pool was clean enough to score a 70 percent from the health department.

 “I’ve been working since I was 7,” Silva said. “So I’m tired.”

That wasn’t even the toughest part of her childhood. When Silva was 16, her mother suffered a fatal heart attack. She quickly had to learn how to run the businesses because she was the only family member who spoke English.

One time she accidentally priced gas at 9.9 cents instead of 99 cents a gallon, and her uncle had to pull her out of high school to fix the problem.

“She basically raised herself a lot of the time, though she had her aunts and uncles,” said Jose Carrillo, a close friend of Silva’s since high school when they rode the bus together. “She could have gone wild and used that as an excuse. But she was hardworking and focused, like she is now.”

You’d never have known what Silva went through from the happy, ebullient way she always walked into a classroom, said then-McFarland High School teacher Gerald Howze.

Each year, Howze would select a dozen stand-out students to be on his yearbook staff and Silva was among them because of her maturity, leadership skills and get-it-done attitude.

Howze later helped Silva get into the Career Beginnings program at CSUB, which exposes disadvantaged high schoolers to higher education and career options.

“The students were wonderful, they just needed opportunities,” said Howze, a triple CSUB alumnus. “Sonia was one of them.”

Sonia Silva in high school

Silva played tennis at McFarland High School.

Silva was offered a full-ride scholarship to CSUB, but wanted to escape Kern County and so enrolled at USC. She went from living in a town of 5,000 to a college campus of 30,000 – in the heart of Los Angeles.

It opened up a whole new world to Silva. Her roommate was from Oklahoma, so she got to see that part of the country. She had classmates whose parents were in gangs, so she learned about L.A. gang culture. She grew to love community service when one of her business classes helped Crenshaw High School get a Xerox machine and start a copy service in an area without one.

And, notably, she discovered people come to the United States from other countries to attend college.

Silva did struggle academically, though. The textbooks she used at McFarland High were so old they’d been signed by her friends’ parents. Many of her USC classmates, by contrast, had gone to top high schools with pre-college programs.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, maybe I should have taken that scholarship to CSUB,’” Silva said. “But I stuck it out and I graduated in four years.”

She also became a fierce USC Trojans fan, said Carrillo, a big Notre Dame Fighting Irish supporter. Silva once got into it with the Notre Dame leprechaun mascot at a Trojans-Fighting Irish football game.

“He comes across and sees me with my Notre Dame gear and says, ‘Go Irish!’” Carrillo said of the leprechaun. “And then Sonia jumps up.

“It turns into ‘Your clover diploma is useless,’ and ‘Your Trojan diploma is a prophylactic.’ And I just remember sitting back and thinking, ‘Sonia of McFarland would have never started this argument. ‘ But it was all in good fun.”

Jose Carrillo and Sonia Silva at commencement reception

Sonia Silva and Jose Carrillo have been close friends – more like siblings – since high school. They are also both members of the CSUB Alumni Association board. Here they’re working the alumni table at the 2018 CSUB Commencement Reception.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1996, Silva worked for Philip Morris negotiating product placement in stores to increase sales. Next came a stint selling pharmaceuticals.

The jobs paid well but weren’t very satisfying, so Silva started substitute teaching for the Compton Unified School District. It became full-time work because the state had taken over the district and every time its school monitors came to their campus, the teachers called out sick.

“They wouldn’t even have a lesson plan,” Silva said. “You just had to figure things out.”  

Silva also started teaching adult school. Her students tested so well, she said, rumors circulated she was feeding them answers. Silva thinks she was successful because she didn’t speak fluent Spanish, the native tongue of her students, and the two sides had to really focus on communicating ideas effectively.

After a year and a half, in July 2000, higher education came calling. She took a job as an administrative assistant in Student Affairs at USC and moved her way up over the course of nine years. She ran a wide range of student programs and events, ultimately supervising 40 undergraduate student staffers and managing seven departments.

Silva found her niche.

“I really think that higher education levels the playing field for people. It doesn’t matter if you’re very wealthy or poor,” she said.

“I mean it matters if you’re a first-generation college student and you don’t have the same tools or resources to be successful as a fifth-generation college student. But in terms of when you have a degree, and even as you’re going along, it really levels the playing field.”

And higher education “changes the culture capital” of entire families, Silva said. Siblings and cousins of first-generation college students see they can go to college, too. Three of Silva’s cousins went to USC after she did.

Anyone who knows Silva knows she takes skin care verrrry seriously. What many don’t know is why.

During her first year working at USC, a growth on her leg was diagnosed as Stage 2 melanoma. Luckily it hadn’t spread. But the surgery she underwent to remove it required her to re-learn how to walk, even how to keep shoes on her feet.

“If I would wear a flip flop, I would just kick it off,” she remembered. “From my knee down, I couldn’t control my leg.  I had to really think about it. … My brain had to tell my foot to hold my shoe in.”

Silva didn’t start feeling better for five years. She’s been cancer-free for 19 years this month.

COMING HOME

Silva was visiting home when she saw a CSUB job advertised in the newspaper: to run a grant-funded student program. She got it, and over time managed more and more grants, such as one to get parents more engaged in their children’s college education because it improves GPAs.

After she earned her master’s in public administration from CSUB in 2013, her current position opened up “and the rest is history.”

Sonia Silva and Favour Epuna

Silva stands with Favour Epuna, a CSUB student from Nigeria, being inducted into the Phi Beta Delta Honor Society. Silva is also a member of the organization.

Among the countless students she’s helped is Divyang Motavar, a sophomore from western India studying computer science.

When Motavar first arrived at CSUB in December 2017, there’d been a communication mix-up and he unexpectedly found the campus deserted. He got sick eating too much pizza (the only food he could find), missed home and suffered anxiety attacks.

So Motavar went back home.

He thought he could just fly back to Bakersfield the following semester, but he was wrong. He had to start the visa process all over again. Silva helped him, talking to him on the phone or via email almost every day.

After Motavar returned to CSUB, in the spring of 2018, Silva helped him settle in, figure out what to do after withdrawing from some classes, and grapple with his homesickness.

“I’m an only child but if I ever had an older sibling, I’d want them to be like Sonia,” he said. “She takes care of me like I’m family. And not just me. All of her students.”

SEEING THE WORLD

Silva loves travel. She tries to do it like her students, taking public transit instead of taxis, for example. She’s been to 15 countries.

“I love learning about new cultures, seeing new things,” Silva said. “…Travel pushes you out of your comfort zone and just makes you open to so many things.”

Sonia Silva in London

Silva loves to travel the world. Here she is in front of the Tower Bridge in London, England.

Her favorite destination is always the last place she’s been. She can’t think of a place she didn’t like.

Unexpected discoveries are the best, Silva said. Like when she joined a group congregating in a Belgian square and learned all about Meyboom, which celebrates the 1213 victory of Brussels over neighboring city Leuven in a fight over a beer tax.

Like when a clothing store salesperson in Japan handed her a dryer-sheet like product to put over her head so she wouldn’t get makeup or oil on the outfits she was trying on.

And like when she learned in India how restrooms are laid out and how to not get sick: by avoiding fresh-cut fruit and uncooked vegetables.

“I would go anywhere, as long as it was safe for women,” Silva said. “Everything is on my bucket list.”



Open Quote
We get to travel around the world from the comforts of our office. Close Quote
Sonia Silva,
Director of International Students and Programs