Professor Silvia Mazzula, Ph.D., changes the narrative for minorities, empowering Latinas in academia.
By Jennifer Nied
When Silvia Mazzula, Ph.D., was a child growing up in Uruguay, she never dreamed of becoming an award-winning professor, researcher, and author. Even the thought of college seemed out of reach because both of her parents had dropped out of high school to support themselves. “Growing up, I didn’t have any professional role models,” says Mazzula. However, after immigrating to the U.S. at age 9, her career possibilities grew, albeit slowly. She saw doctors and lawyers on television and set her sights on becoming a medical doctor.
Mazzula completed a B.S. in Biology, but pivoted away from medical school after an unpleasant summer spent working in a morgue. After spending some time away from academics—a place where she thrived but always felt like an outsider—Mazzula enrolled at Columbia University for an advanced degree.
“One of the first things I remember walking into Columbia was the smell of the hallways,” she says. “They smelled affluent. The smell reminded me that I didn’t belong.” Pushing past her insecurities at Columbia, Mazzula earned a master’s degree in Philosophy and doctorate in Counseling Psychology.
Her path to becoming a tenured Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay was anything but linear. “The course of my life paved itself,” she says. “I’ve been flexible, rolling with the punches, and no one has ever told me what to do.” But, the lessons she learned along the way shaped her main mission. “The running theme in all of my
work is changing the narrative around the stereotypes about what a scholar, researcher, or student looks like,” says Mazzula.
Each day, she works to foster opportunities for Latina researchers and better explain the Latinx experience. Her lab at John Jay, where she focuses on race-based cultural experiences, issues of diversity, and inclusion, is as unconventional as the subject matter. Her team, which she likens to a family, is made up of many John Jay alumni, and everyone works under her guidance.
Mazzula devotes more time to training and mentoring than getting her own work published, and that’s the way she likes it. “I’m invested in them as human beings who are going to change the world someday,” says Mazzula. “My job is to do whatever I can to prepare them.”
She empowers her team while also working to change the narrative of who belongs in academia. For her, that might be something as simple as bringing her own children to the office. “I want my students to know, a mom of three, who commutes and does not come from a wealthy family, is the lead investigator.”
At the same time, Mazzula is adding voices where voices are missing. She’s accomplishing that as the Founder and Executive Director of Latina Researchers Network (LRN), the country’s first multi-disciplinary research network dedicated to Latina doctoral level investigators and scholars. Six years ago, Mazzula saw a need, and in the process of filling the gap, created an international community that has grown to more than 3,000 strong.
This year’s conference, held at John Jay, was especially intense with discussions on Puerto Rico, the immigration crisis, and family separation at the border. According to
Mazzula, speakers were challenged to focus on the human side of the problem and what we can do to move forward. “There was crying, laughing, and a feeling of empowerment,” she says. “We can support each other and challenge the discrimination and injustices our community faces daily.”