Many Reasons to Cheer

Georgina Rivera-Singletary, district supervisor of migrant education for Hillsborough County Schools, with one of her life-changing mentors, USF Professor Ann Cranston-Gingras, chair of the College of Education Special Education Department and director of the Center for Migrant Education.                 
Photo by: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

From high school dropout and teen mother to school district administrator, a USF doctoral graduate is making her family, friends and colleagues proud.

By Barbara Melendez

     USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (May 1, 2014) – All who attend the College of Education graduate commencement this Saturday evening can expect to hear a huge cheer when Georgina Rivera-Singletary walks across the stage to accept her Ph.D. in special education.

The Zephyrhills resident is expecting, “my awesome husband of course, my parents, my sister, two of my children, my youngest son is in Afghanistan but might stream in, my mother-in-law, my daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, some of my YMCA friends, and I have a Zumba class that I sponsor scholarships for Latino students, so about 10 of them will be coming, close family, other friends, some of my work staff, and my USF friends from the Ph.D. program.

“And of course the two people that made this all possible, Angie Black and Professor Ann Cranston-Gingras. I owe everything to these two amazing ladies.”

At last count, there will be close to 50 people from her various constituencies in the Sun Dome. They all have good reason to be happy for her. Besides being an especially warm and caring person, Rivera-Singletary’s journey has been inspirational. Her road from migrant farm worker to a doctoral degree had many twists and turns and she is on a mission to help others find their way to the opportunities she had.

An escape into marriage

Born in Homestead and raised in Pasco County, Florida, her family traveled to other states throughout the growing seasons to make a living. Though she always loved learning, at a very young age Rivera-Singletary found a way out of the frustration of constant travel, missing school and never being able to make lasting friends.

“I always felt socially awkward when I had to be the new kid on the block and so in my immature mind, I felt the only way to avoid the frustration was to get married,”she said. “So at the tender age of almost 15, I dropped out and eloped so that I could avoid going to school.”

Her life made a sharp turn when she met Angie Black, the now retired district resource teacher for the Pasco County Adult Migrant Program which supports and helps migrant dropouts to reenter school to graduate. “She is the reason I am where I am today,” Rivera-Singletary said. “She was persistent and never gave up on me and always told me how bright and smart I was.”

With Black’s help, she received her GED at 21 while still working in the fields and raising her two oldest children. By the time she turned 27 she was ready to take the next steps in her educational journey. She had to struggle on as the single mother with three children at that point.

Undaunted, Rivera-Singletary earned an associate degree from Pasco-Hernando Community College and then a bachelor’s degree with a major in psychology and a master’s degree in educational leadership from St. Leo University.

What brought her to USF was the remainder of some scholarship money that she didn’t want to waste. USF was close by and offered the education specialist degree. It was the persistence of another educator that helped her take her next steps.

Another important meeting

“Fortunately, I met Dr. Cranston-Gingras who is the second person who has made extraordinary contributions to my educational success,” she said. “She was on my committee for the Ed.S. project and provided unconditional and outstanding guidance and support to me through a very difficult time that almost caused me to drop out.”

Cranston-Gingras is a professor of special education and chair of the special education department who also serves as director of the Center for Migrant Education.

“Georgina’s work ethic is exceptional,” she observed. “Her focus from the time I met her has been on doing the best job possible. She is the most determined and persistent student with whom I have worked. Throughout the doctoral program, whenever she hit a roadblock, she rolled up her sleeves and worked her way out of it.”

At the professor’s suggestion, she applied for a grant available to special education administrators and was accepted.

“Dr. Cranston-Gingras once again took me under her wing, and here I am today, a Ph.D. graduate!”

Sacrifice again entered into her strategy for success.

“Basically, I kissed my social life goodbye,” she said. “Yes, it's insane to work full time and be in a Ph.D. program, however, I'm a conqueror and I managed, missing many family functions along the way.”

And she received the help she needed at home for a change.

“By this time, I had met and married my current husband who has been a huge advocate and cheerleader for me to reach these heights.He supported me unconditionally and put up with all the frustrations that come with being a fulltime worker and college student.”

What started out as a convenient location to continue her education became more.

“After the first year, I fell in love with USF and the College of Education, the friends I met and the professors who taught me well, so I am proud to be a Bull.”

An Upward Trajectory

Rivera-Singletary’s work career has been a direct beneficiary of her educational progress as she moved away from agricultural work.

“I started as a secretary, then went on to be a membership specialist for the Girl Scouts, then worked as a teacher, providing classroom instruction for the adult ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program and high school Spanish for secondary students simultaneously.”

She worked her way up to assistant principal at Pasco High School and then landed her current position as the district supervisor of migrant education for Hillsborough County Schools, which she points out with pride, “is the eighth largest district in the nation which has provided me the opportunity to practice my passion of serving some 4,200 migrant students. Hillsborough will always be special to me for this.”

Tuning into her life and work experience, Rivera-Singletary’s dissertation was a labor of love in which she researched collaborative practices among federal programs related to migrant education, special education and ELL (English language learners).

“These federal programs supplement core instruction,” she explained. “I explored the extent of collaborative practices between leaders in these programs when developing and providing educational services to migrant students who are potentially eligible for all three.

“We need to know how we can improve and support more collaboration among special education, ELL and migrant programs so that the achievement outcomes for migrant students are greater and that they receive all educational services they are eligible to receive without duplication, or on the other end of the spectrum, exclusion.”

A passion to help

Rivera-Singletary brings her passion to help the students who are part of the world she was part of in her youth.

“One of the subgroups of migrant students that I feel is especially vulnerable is that of migrant students with disabilities,” she said. “If migrant students who do not have disabilities struggle, I can only imagine how much more difficulty migrant students with disabilities must face daily in their classrooms.I want more migrant students to be like me and reach heights they cannot even imagine they are capable of reaching.All they need is guidance and support and for someone to believe in their ability and guide them.”

Rivera-Singletary’s persistence has rubbed off on her own children.

“I'm happy that I can say I broke the cycle of low education levels for our family,” she said.“All three of my children graduated from high school. My daughter is a licensed cosmetologist, my oldest son is an entrepreneur and my youngest son is a USF graduate from the College of Business.My family is very proud of me for all I have accomplished.

“I guess you can say I was a bird with underdeveloped wings, but once I was provided the opportunity to grow those wings, I became an eagle and have soared to new heights.I admit that there are still times when my inner migrant worker/student insecurities try to invade my thoughts, but I turn it around and I use my experiences to reach the migrant students and families I advocate for on a daily basis.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563