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Family key to success

Alum credits her parents' hard work and dedication for her success as an educator

June 24, 2019

Look to her parents. That’s one way to understand Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez ’00.

Mancilla-Martinez earned two Harvard degrees after graduating summa cum laude from Mount Saint Mary’s. Today, she is the associate dean for graduate education and an associate professor of literacy (primary appointment) and special education (secondary appointment) at Vanderbilt University. In April, the American Educational Research Association honored her with its 2019 award for excellence in education research, honoring her outstanding scholarship and service to education.

By no means a child of privilege, Mancilla-Martinez grew up in Inglewood, the second of three daughters born to Mexican immigrants Felipe Mancilla and Jovita Garcia. Felipe came to Los Angeles at age 16 and worked two jobs to help his family. Jovita finished seven years of schooling, and dedicated herself to helping her girls, even if she didn’t speak English fluently.

Mancilla-Martinez was a sophomore in high school when she got pregnant, a few weeks after turning 15. If adversity in life builds character, this episode steeled her family into a pillar of support.

“Without question, I admire the deep dedication my mom Jovita and dad Felipe have for their family, in the full sense of the word,” Mancilla-Martinez said. “They are simply the most hard-working people you will ever meet and so incredibly supportive of all their daughters do. Without the unconditional support my mom and dad have always provided for me, my life would be entirely different. Period.”

Mancilla-Martinez graduated from Santa Monica High School after her son Daniel was born. She applied to the Mount on the recommendation of her high school counselor.

“After visiting campus, I was convinced Mount Saint Mary's was the place for me,” she said. “I definitely appreciated that it was a Catholic liberal arts college with a focus on women.”

Her mother drove her to campus the first two years. Mancilla-Martinez’s original plan to was get an associate’s degree. Her professors urged her to work toward a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, and apply to Harvard after graduation.

“I always felt, and continue to feel, so much support. It was clear to me that my professors genuinely cared about my development. Among the most memorable were my interactions with Sister Mary Evelyn Flynn, Sister Kieran Vaughn, Pat Disterhoft, Nancy Pine and Debbie DePuy.”

Team Jeannette grew to include not only her parents and son, but also her husband, Oscar Martinez, whom she married in 2003. She earned her master’s and doctorate from Harvard in 2004 and 2009, respectively.

Mancilla-Martinez taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago and UC Irvine before joining the faculty at Vanderbilt in 2015. The American Educational Research Association honored her with its early career award, established to honor an individual with a distinguished program of cumulative educational research, in any field of educational inquiry.

“My goal is to continue conducting research that informs efforts to best support the language and reading development of our most vulnerable populations, including students from low-income homes and students whose first language is not English,” she said.

Evelyn Oyuela-Kowalski, ’11 and ’14 MS, is a psychology instructor and program director for the Weekend/Evening College. She said Mancilla-Martinez is an inspiration to all first-generation college graduates.

“Her resilience and success should serve as an example to all of our students,” she said.

It’s a success story Mancilla-Martinez shares with her family, especially her parents, who live with them in Tennessee. So perhaps, she was a child of privilege after all, being so loved and supported by such parents.

At Mancilla-Martinez’s second Harvard commencement, doctorate degree in hand, her husband, son, parents, sisters and other family celebrated one dream fulfilled. Her father said seeing her achieve that milestone was like “going to heaven smiling.”

His daughter looks to that memory to continue believing in herself. There are bigger dreams out there.

“It was everything,” she said.