Paulina Mross, executive director for non-profit organization, Downtown Languages, runs literacy programs for Latino immigrants
It’s a Tuesday night and the halls of Moffit Elementary School in Springfield are buzzing with activity. Children play tag and parents mingle as they wait for their English literacy class to start. A tall, slender woman walks through the front doors and everyone perks up at her arrival. She firmly shakes fathers’ hands, leans down to kiss mothers’ cheeks and waves hello to children running by, calling each by name.
“Hola, chiquita,” she says in Spanish to a preschool girl holding her father’s hand. “How are you doing today, my love?”
Paulina Mross is the executive director of Downtown Languages, a Eugene non-profit that teaches English as a second language to immigrant communities.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night Latino families gather at Moffit Elementary School to participate in a family literacy program called Pilas!
Mross began her job in 2011 and has since overseen the development of the Pilas! program.
“This might be the best job I’ve ever had,” Mross says. “We are helping people get the tools to fight for themselves.”
Mross, 39, was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and as a Latina in the United States
she says she understands the difficulty of learning English as a second language.
Although she took English classes in reading and writing at her high school in Mexico, Mross says she “really had to force [herself] to speak English” when she came to the United States.
After meeting a man from Eugene who was studying in Mexico, Mross, at the age of 18, immigrated with him to the United States. She was pregnant, which she says heightened the stress that comes with acculturation.
“The first year when you come to a new country is very difficult,” Mross says. “You just have to overcome so many things: the language barrier, the customs.”
She says her initial interactions with the Eugene community were welcoming, which eased her transition into her new environment.
“When I first came to Eugene there were hardly any Latinos and people were very curious about me…you’re like a weird bug,” Mross says. However, now that the Latino population has increased in Lane County, Mross says many Latinos are treated in a condescending manner due to a lack of cross-cultural understanding.
“I’ve always felt like Latinos get tested more than they should,” she says. “They are capable just like any other human being.”
During her first year in the United States, Mross could not find employment. She applied to McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants, but was not hired. She decided to volunteer as an interpreter at a pre-natal clinic in Eugene and took classes at Lane Community College. She received undergraduate degrees in business and biology in 1999 and masters in literature at the University of Oregon in 2004.
“I was always a very studious girl,” Mross says. “Education is very important to me.”
After graduating, Mross became a professor at Willamette University and the University of Portland where she taught Latin American Studies and Spanish Literature. However, Mross says she felt insulated in a university setting and began looking for ways to become involved in the community. A year and a half ago she started working for Downtown Languages part-time and was soon promoted to executive director.
“This job is a good match for my personality,” Mross says. “I think I like smaller work environments, and I get to work with an incredible staff. The teachers are so dedicated.”
A kindergarten teacher at the Pilas! program, Sarita Amorocho, has worked with Mross for more than a year.
“I love working with Paulina,” Amorocho says. “She gives you direction and tells you exactly what she needs.”
Amorocho says Mross instills confidence in her employees by giving guidance without hovering.
“You just feel good about yourself when you’re with her,” Amorocho says.
Mross says she avoids leading her staff in an authoritative manner.
“I don’t like micromanagement,” Mross says. “I believe that people are very capable of doing their work. I just think recognizing the talent of each person and letting them develop that is very important.”
Mross says she has tremendous faith in her staff and in herself, which allows the program to be successful.
“I still feel that I have to prove that I am capable of doing things,” Mross says. “But that has only motivated me to work harder.”