Gloria Aparicio Blackwell dreamed of going into engineering, but circumstances—and timing—set her life on a different course. A native of Churuguara, a small town in western Venezuela, Aparicio Blackwell has overcome challenges from her experiences as an immigrant to the United States and as one of few women in a male-dominated career field. Now, as chair of the Montgomery College Board of Trustees, she continues to give back to the community college that welcomed her almost 35 years ago.
As a young woman in Venezuela, Aparicio Blackwell faced bitter disappointment when a faculty strike at her local university prevented her from starting an engineering program there. But she found another way forward—she enrolled in a technical college, where she discovered a program in safety and fire science.
Part of that educational journey brought her into places she never thought she would go, including oil refineries.
“They sent me to the oil fields in Maracaibo [in northwestern Venezuela],” Aparicio Blackwell says. “There, I learned to put into practice what I was learning in the classroom. I even went into the middle of a lake where they were extracting the oil… It was fascinating.”
One of just five women in the program, they were learning among 30 men.
“Having that opportunity was very exciting because then you can prove that you can do it, and it was always a challenge,” she says. “I always wanted to be on the front lines. They said it was only for guys, I said ‘no, I can do it.’”
Aparicio Blackwell later emigrated to the United States and settled in Silver Spring. That was when she first learned about Montgomery College. She enrolled and continued taking courses in fire safety, ultimately joining the Facilities Department as a student worker at the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Campus. Her manager at the time served as a mentor, she recalls, and gave her opportunities to make mistakes and learn:
“The support and the welcoming that you get can really break or make you through the process of coming to another country,” she says. “That really resonated with me.”
You can do it, too. If you want to be a part of a community, if you want to be a change agent, be involved
After transferring to the University of Maryland and graduating with a bachelor’s in industrial technology with a concentration in safety and fire science, Aparicio Blackwell went to work for American University and then Pepco, the electric provider to much of the Washington, DC area. In 1997, she returned to her alma mater, University of Maryland, this time as an employee in the safety area.
At that time, the university had a large Latino population in its Housekeeping Services Unit. Aparicio Blackwell soon found herself translating safety instructions for employees, and working on conflict resolution and diversity programs.
“It was then I realized that people didn’t have much information,” she says. “How could we connect the university with our communities?”
In 2012, Aparicio Blackwell launched the Office of Community Engagement at University of Maryland, a unit she leads to this day. She has been a Montgomery College trustee since 2009. Now, as the board chair, she enjoys a unique opportunity to share her perspectives on immigration as well as the role of higher education in workforce development, especially in how it can—and should—adapt to changes in technology and the changing nature of work.
“I know that Montgomery College is ready, and that many programs that we are putting in place are to address those different dynamics coming in,” she says. “At the same time, we as the board have to be more strategic and start thinking about how we take on the new challenges that are coming.”
Her time with the board, now in its eleventh year, is her way of giving back. “I have been so fortunate and honored to be a part of this institution–an institution that opened the door to me and gave me the foundation of what my life is here in the United States.”
Aparicio Blackwell’s message to students and immigrants is this:
“You can do it, too. If you want to be a part of a community, if you want to be a change agent, be involved. Being part of your community is most important because that is who you are; that is where you live; that is what you are a part of, an ecosystem.”