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Zurich North America colleagues and White House education honoree Pedro Rivera say nuances can be key to advancing diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging.

Immigrating at age 11 from Mexico City wasn’t easy for Cecilia Parnell, a Customer Experience Manager at Zurich North America and Co-Chair of the employee resource group LUZ: Latinos Unidos for Zurich.

In Mexico, Parnell attended a private school and was a good student. Arriving in the Houston area, she didn’t speak fluent English. So her new school placed her in a bilingual program. “I felt like what these kids were learning, I had learned two years past,” she said. She felt excluded academically and socially, until she taught herself English by binge-watching television over winter break. She was put in regular classes, then started basketball and cheerleading. Gaining access to mainstream education, she said, “was the pivotal piece.”

Today she feels pride in her past, as well as a responsibility to contribute to further progress on diversity, inclusion, equity and belonging for Hispanic and Latinx individuals. That mix of feelings was a recurring theme in the monthlong celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month at Zurich North America, including in a keynote discussion with renowned educator Pedro Rivera (in photo at top).

Other events at Zurich for Hispanic Heritage Month (which runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 each year) included a panel discussion with Zurich customers, hosted by LUZ and moderated by John Diaz, Zurich’s Chief Operating Officer for Middle Market. Zurich’s Government and Regulatory Relations team hosted a virtual town hall with California state Sen. Susan Rubio, who is Chair of the state’s Senate Insurance Committee and a former educator. LUZ also offered a networking opportunity with the nonprofit Year Up and a virtual volunteering session for the Bilingual Austin nonprofit.

Being one of the fortunate

In his keynote discussion, Rivera, who served on President Biden’s Education Transition Team, shared how his cultural background and upbringing in Philadelphia sparked his passion to serve Latinx and other underserved communities via education. Rivera’s leadership in Philadelphia and Lancaster schools, including as a superintendent and principal, earned him a Champion of Change honor from the White House in 2014. He has served as Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania and is now president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

Rivera said his grandparents migrated to the East Coast from Puerto Rico when his parents were young. One grandmother, who had a 4th grade education, worked as a seamstress, sewing zippers onto denim. His other grandmother moved to New York with his uncle and aunt to clean houses. Seeing their work ethic, he resolved to not waste resources and opportunities.

“Growing up in a community where many of us shared the same story, being one of the fortunate to complete high school and go on to higher education really has been the fuel behind me wanting to have that level of impact on others who grew up in communities just like mine,” Rivera told event moderator Al Crook, Zurich North America’s Head of HR Business Partners and Apprenticeship. “Education is really that one true pathway to good employment, to sustainability.”

Seeing his grandmother and mother each work at three jobs also left a mark.

“What drives me is to create a workforce that has a family-sustaining wage,” he said. “If a family doesn’t have to work three jobs to make ends meet, they are more likely to become active members of their community. They are more likely to get involved in their child’s school and civic duties.” 

Investing in the education of the Hispanic and Latinx population, he said, is smart; it’s one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, in addition to being one of the youngest.

“Those who are migrating here from Latin American countries, and also those being born here, are going to represent our future economy,” he said. “History would dictate that change is going to happen, and the quicker we can embrace and adapt to this change, the more successful our economies and other systems will be.”

The pandemic hit when Rivera was Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania.

“We started to prepare modalities of instruction and how would we get kids in school. That was Friday. On Monday we started getting calls from the community. It wasn’t education they needed, it was food. We realized a lot of our kids were coming to school because it was the only nutritious or full meal they were receiving. The second biggest issue we had to pivot to was housing insecurity. And then we started focusing on education. Think about how these systems are responsible for feeding, housing, clothing and educating our students and families. That was a big lesson for me.”

The first but not the last

Many times in his personal and professional life, Rivera has been the first Latino in his family or community to achieve a particular goal or hold a certain role. He always strives to not be the last.

“I was the first member of my family to go onto college,” he said. “When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree, that inspired my mother and aunt to work toward a two-year degree, and inspired my cousins to see that high school graduation and college was an attainable goal.”

In each professional role where he was “the first,” he wanted to identify and inspire other underrepresented individuals interested in one day becoming a leader. “In almost every job, my successor is one I worked to prepare,” he said.

After serving as Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania, Rivera joined Thaddeus Stevens College, which helps the underrepresented and underserved complete education toward two-year associate degrees.

Rivera said 94% of its students find jobs in their area of study, with an average starting salary of about $42,500 a year, due in large part to pragmatic education geared toward in-demand skills. The students’ success chips away at the myth that people from underrepresented communities aren’t ready to learn.

“We may have to work a little harder with some of our modalities of instruction, but if you show them a pathway out of poverty and a pathway to be successful, our students find success and are able to contribute back to their communities.”

The student population is diverse, with some never having seen a Black or brown person and some never having seen a white person.

“When you think of civil unrest and racism, classism, the gender issues that we’re dealing with, children are not born with these biases,” he said. “They learn that behavior. Kids learn to hate.”

Learning and unlearning

They can unlearn as well, in an environment where there is intentionality around a multicultural stance, he said. “When you establish your expected behaviors and values on day one, we sometimes have to work through them, but most of our students step up to the expectation.”

To see whether institutions are truly delivering on diversity, people should ask not just what their acceptance rate is for diverse individuals, but also what the “persistence rate,” or retention, is.

Rivera thinks colleges need to rethink some tenets of higher education, such as extensive general education requirements. “Some kids ask, ‘When am I ever going to use calculus again? When am I going to use advanced literature?’ The truth is they might be asking the right questions. We need to build back relevance in our education, convince and engage students accordingly.”

While in some cases it is overdue, colleges and universities are placing more emphasis on apprenticeships, internships and externships, he said. “We integrate apprenticeships and internships in all of our programs,” he said. “We get on average 12 job offers for every one of our grads. And our grads always tend to choose organizations that they externed or interned for.”

The onus for gainful employment isn’t just on the college. Students considering their path forward need to ask themselves more than just, “What do I love to do?” Rivera said. They also need to ask, “Can I make money doing it?” and “Does society need it?”

“If you can answer yes to those other two questions, then you know you’re on a good clear path to a career,” Rivera said.

Employers also must evolve to attract and keep the diverse talent they seek, he said. Rivera said one employer lamented that an otherwise great worker was frequently late. Rivera asked what time she was expected to arrive. The employer said 8 a.m. Rivera went back to the worker, who was a Stevens graduate, who said she has children she has to drop off at school at 8:30.

“These were family obligations that the company was not accommodating,” Rivera said. “We need employers who know soft skills too. Sometimes those little shifts in employer expectations make all the difference.”