We are eager to introduce you to Dr. Diana Cruz our new Director of Student Affairs for Gr. 8-11 as we make way for carving out an identity for our high school program. She joins us from Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) where she worked with Lauren Fisher, our Dean of Students for Gr. 5-7. Diana pursued her master's and doctorate at Boston College in literature.
During and after graduate school Dr. Cruz taught American literature and African-American literature at the college level for about 16 years, but she truly enjoyed working with students and gravitated to the student support side, most recently at BMCC.
Dr. Cruz looks forward to supporting our students and working closely with our first graduating class. We had the chance to ask her some questions, so our families could get to know her better.What sparked your interest in joining our team here at BASIS Independent Brooklyn?
I am really astonished by how the curriculum is laid out and the vision that the school has. It’s a dream. It really is a dream to see such a group of motivated, talented people work to raise students up to the greatest level that they can reach. I actually said to the person who introduced me to BASIS Independent Brooklyn, Lauren Fisher, is this real? And I meant that question. “Is this real?” I really did. Because it looks really good on paper. I read the blog; I looked at the website; I read the mission statement. I said if this is how it is in practice and not just theory - I’m in.
The teachers were the reason I joined. The school philosophy draws and supports great teachers who go above and beyond to make a difference. Teachers who want to get to know the student and understand what each one needs; they take the time to invest in their students. There is a culture that encourages teachers to determine where students are and meet them right where they should be. Our teachers understand their students' interests and what they are capable of in the classroom and beyond. Sometimes students do not even know what they need or want. It is critical to have teachers who are attuned to their students and want to guide and mentor.
I know the power of a good school with invested teachers personally. I went to the same Catholic school from grades one through eight. My mother put me in that school on the advice of my kindergarten teacher in public school. I don’t know what she saw in me, but my teacher pulled my mom to the side one day and said, “If you can put Diana in private school, I would encourage you to do that." I feel like when I talk to the teachers at this school they are all Mrs. Callaway. They are all looking at their students with those eyes: “Where should you be?”
The power of having mentors cannot be overestimated. To be able to go to my undergraduate dean and ask her advice on a job offer from BASIS Independent Brooklyn, is a powerful thing. There is no education from a book that can match that. However, when a great education is paired with that – everything is possible.
You mentioned mentorship and getting to know student interests. Is that a priority for you?
Yes, it is the top priority for me. It is actually something that led me to this point. In previous roles, sometimes I had to pull back from that. As a literature professor, you are not supposed to be that deep into the students personally, but I found myself in the position of being that professor where the student comes in and closes the door. When the door closes, you know "it’s about to go down!"
Students often requested that I help with a workshop or talk to their friends about academic anxiety. A resident advisor would ask me to come to her dorm to talk to students. I’m wired for that. I want to know "what do you need and what is getting in your way." I would ask my students that as their literature professor, but the question changes when you are asking them that as an advisor.
What challenges do you see facing students/families in Gr. 8-11 that you are thinking about coming into this position?
When I was in 8th grade the world was such that we had the luxury of thinking of success and competitiveness fairly locally – the NYS Regents, for instance. Times have changed, and this focus on having our students learn on a level on par with the top students in the world really spoke to me. Having our students excel wherever they plant their feet is key. I think there are two things that make that possible. If you can do these two things, you can thrive in whatever grade and in whatever stage of life you are in.
You have to be a pro at assessing and you have to be a pro at adjusting. If you can assess and if you can adjust based on your assessment, you can do anything. Those two skills are always in motion; they are recurring. When people know how to do those two things, assess and adjust, I believe there is nothing they cannot do whether they are in PreK or a high school program or they are the President of the United States.
Are you excited about coming to help build our high school?
Yes! That was what drew me in during my first conversation about BASIS Independent Brooklyn. I thought: I want to be there for the first graduating class!
A lot of my work over the years has been in recruiting high school students for the college programs that I have been affiliated with. I would go to high school sites and talk to students and spend a lot of my time meeting with them when I supervised the summer START program at BMCC. You can never start too early readying students for life after high school. It is not about setting them up for the tests they will take, the interviews they will have. It is about building them up as people to let them know that this work now is going to be so good for them!
“I’m so excited for you. What do you want? Think about it.” This question is important and exciting to ask students in high school. For many, it is when they get used to having someone ask them what they want and not tell them. We try to have them not be afraid of everything that is open to them because it really can be really overwhelming.
I love what we are doing at BASIS Independent: from the earliest years you are exposing students to thinking about what they want and taking responsibility for what they want. So by the time someone is saying to them in 9th and 10th grade “What do you think about college?” they are used to having that thought for themselves. I cannot overstate how rare that is. How often students say to me, “Well, what would you do?” “What do you think I should do?” I would not tell you if I could because I am not you. I can’t tell you because I’m not you.
Your doctorate is in English. What was your focus of study in graduate school?
The broad focus was American literature, mostly 19th Century. In practice, I taught 19th and 20th Century and contemporary. My special focus was African-American literature. I took my first African-American literature class as a senior in college but students need to read this literature much earlier than that.
As an African Americanist, I really studied the heavy hitters: Baldwin, Ellison, Hurston, Morrison, Naylor. I wrote my dissertation on Rita Dove, the first African-American poet laureate. Well, I do need to note that Gwendolyn Brooks technically was the first, but the position Gwendolyn Brooks held wasn’t called poet laureate. Dove is "officially" the first.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Rita Dove who currently teaches at UVA. It was thrilling to even have the honor of introducing her at one of her readings.
Please join us in welcoming Dr. Cruz to our community! Her first official day is September 18th.