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Spirit of Advocacy: Maria Vazquez

Dr. Maria Vazquez

Deputy Superintendent

Orange County Public Schools

“The pandemic has wreaked havoc on everyone’s lives, but I also believe it’s created opportunities in education. It has shown us we can rethink how we use time, space and resources to better educate our students and provide more choice and more opportunities.” Dr. Maria Vazquez

During her junior year of college, Dr. Maria Vazquez realized she wanted to be an educator instead of a chemical engineer, but it took her parents a while to warm up to the idea. They had left everything they owned to flee Fidel Castro’s reign in Cuba and start a new life in the United States. They wanted their two daughters to have solid, well-paying careers, and they took a keen interest in the girls’ college studies — something they hadn’t had themselves.

That made it difficult for Vazquez to hide her plans when she changed her major in her junior year. But it had to be done. Raised as a devout Catholic, she was sitting in church one Sunday letting her mind wander during the homily, and she clearly saw a picture of her future.

“I saw myself teaching at the school I had gone to,” says Vazquez, who now serves as deputy superintendent for Orange County Public Schools. “It was such a powerful sensation that it moved me to go see an advisor the next day. What’s even more amazing is that my first teaching job was at that school.”

A Change of Course

In the College of Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, the advisor said she would need only one extra semester to change majors. “So unbeknownst to my parents, I switched,” she says. “I was able to hide it until my last semester. By then my parents had divorced. I remember coming into our home, and my mom was on the phone saying, ‘No, I think you’ve got the wrong number. There’s no one here who would be doing that internship.’”

Vazquez knew she had been caught. Her mother handed her the phone and she finished the conversation. “I hung up the phone and sat down at our little dining table and told my mom I had switched careers, and she started crying.” Her mother told her, “You’re throwing your life away. Your dad and I sacrificed so much, and you’re going to be a teacher. You’re not going to make money.”

“I was telling her, ‘Mom, I really love what I’m doing. I’ve already done two internships, and this is where I need to be.’ She was just distraught. And of course, she said, ‘You’ll have to tell your father.’ That was a much more difficult conversation. He didn’t cry. He was angry.

“But they came to recognize that it really had been the right decision, that I was able to make an impact and make a difference and that all was going to be right with the world,” she says, laughing. “That took a long time.

“That always stayed with me and made me want people to understand the power of teaching and the impact it can have on the future — positive and negative.”

Leading with Heart

Vazquez went on to get master’s and doctoral degrees in education from the University of Central Florida.

Her parents, who have both passed away, influenced her in another way, too. Her father’s cardiovascular disease led him to have an aortic transplant in his early 70s, an experience that made a big impression on Vazquez. Her father had grown up in Spain and was active as a young man, playing soccer and eating a healthy diet. But in his later years he smoked, despite pleas from his daughters to quit.

“I saw opportunities for me to influence the students as a principal, emphasizing exercise and wellness for not only our kids but their families,” says Vazquez, who shares three adult children and three young grandchildren today with her husband, Ulysses. “I especially saw that as a great need in some of our more diverse communities. I’m Hispanic, and when I was growing up, vegetables were maybe an avocado and a little bit of lettuce. We were much heavier on the carbs.”

She became a board member with the American Heart Association, another place she instinctively knew she belonged. This gave her a platform to impact policy about wellness, including tobacco use among teens — a phenomenon that has grown in recent years with vaping, the use of electronic cigarettes that are easier to hide than their paper tobacco counterparts. Vazquez has taken on the fight against teen smoking as a personal challenge in Orange County, where she is second in command to Superintendent Barbara Jenkins. Together they oversee the ninth-largest school district in the U.S. with more than 206,000 students, 25,000 employees and 202 schools.

“It’s a different way of thinking about the school’s job,” she says. “You’re there to ensure students have been exposed to experiences that create choices and pathways that lead them to live healthy, productive and successful lives.”

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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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