PSU grad, equity advocate earns promotion
Author: Jillian Daley
Posted: May 25, 2020
The Hillsboro School District superintendent and human resources director called to tell Portland State alumna MariaEugenia Olivar that they were waiting at her front door.

They said they needed to talk to her, as a few things had come up while checking references for her application as assistant principal of Hillsboro High School. Olivar had planned to meet with the district team in Google Meet, but now they were standing on her threshold! Her husband was on a conference call, so she told her children to stay in their rooms, and, trepidatiously, opened the door. Rather than an inquisition, the visit proved to be a friendly ambush; they were alerting her that she’d landed the assistant principal position.

“It was a big, big surprise,” Olivar said. “It’s an amazing feeling. I love change. Change is the only constant thing that we have in the universe. I was looking for a change.”

On June 1, she officially steps into a role for which she is beyond qualified. Born in Venezuela, Olivar is a multilingual former U.S. Navy reservist with 20 years of education experience, two master’s degrees and a law degree. In her free time, this mother of three enjoys snowboarding and longboarding. Yet Olivar said that she couldn’t have achieved her current leadership role at Hillsboro High without some faithful supporters, including her family and her PSU professors.

“We have done all of this together as a family, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Professors Susan Carlile or Deborah Peterson, absolutely not,” Olivar said.

They believed in her dream of becoming an equity advocate and leader, but not everyone else did. Along the way, she’s had roadblocks, including a fellow teacher who informed her that she should avoid any supervisory or management role.

“She said I wouldn’t last and would be too bold,” Olivar said.

Nevertheless, she persisted. With encouragement from supporters including her mentor, Olga Acuña (a former Hillsboro High assistant principal and PSU alumna), Olivar summoned the courage to seek a Master of Education Administration: Leadership for Equity & Social Change in the PSU College of Education. Having filled various roles in the Hillsboro School District since 2004, when she applied for her master’s Olivar was a teacher on special assignment, specializing in dual language programs.

Despite her brave step, doubt lingered. She told Associate Professor Susan Carlile that she must remain in a support role to an administrator. Carlile gently disagreed. “We’ll work on that,” Olivar recalls Carlile saying. They did work on it, together. In 2017, Olivar obtained her master’s, along with an Elementary and Secondary School Administrator certification from PSU.

“MariaEugenia brings a deep commitment to equity, a rich background as a bilingual educator and a passion for ensuring that all children have a strong education,” Carlile said. “She will work tirelessly for linguistically and culturally diverse students and families. I was honored to be her instructor, colleague and friend.”

Associate Professor Deborah Peterson said that Carlile is a revered mentor who inspires upcoming generations to be leaders for equity.

“Do I feel like the luckiest professor on earth that I get to work with colleagues like Susan and graduates of our program like MariaEugenia?” Peterson said. “Oh, yeah!”

Having such a strong education—and such staunch proponents—has fortified Olivar to serve students ably. In 1997, she attained a law degree from the Universidad de los Andes in Venezuela. As an attorney, she aided low-income people in her country. Despite her expertise as an attorney, she shouldered legal work solely to help others, earning only a sack of avocados and a bag of plantains for a year’s commitment. She supported herself with her pay as an English tutor.

A year later, she decided to take her teaching skills to a school in New York. Olivar was stunned at the opportunities in the United States.

“I realized that women here have a place in society that is very different than a lot of places that I have lived and traveled,” Olivar said.

She decided to stay in this country and joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, serving in the military branch for six years. She acquired a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification in linguistics and language development from the City College of New York.

Next, she spent a year at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts, studying special education and learning to adapt math and science curriculum and reading and language arts curriculum for students with special needs.

She later received a TESOL certification from Lewis & Clark College in English language development and then a Master of Arts in Teaching from Pacific University, along with an initial administrator’s license.

Her credentials indicate her focus has long been teaching non-native English speakers. Olivar is Spanish-English bilingual. Her lingual repertoire also contains a strong grasp of French from her high school studies and conversations with her French husband, as well as a conversational understanding of Italian because of Sundays spent chatting with her Italian grandmother.

Olivar’s unique multilingual background and commitment to expanding her own knowledge through multiple degrees and certifications affords her a greater pool of resources to draw from than most educators of diverse students. In addition, she has repeatedly demonstrated her dedication to diverse students.

While with the Hillsboro School District, Olivar established the Dual Language Family University Program, which provides families with information about the educational system and assists students in their learning. Olivar also developed instructional structures for the district’s Dual Language Summer School. She even found time from 2011 to 2019 to lead post-graduate classes in the TESOL field as a University of Portland ancillary professor.

“MariaEugenia is a caring, culturally responsive leader, who models inclusive practices and high expectations for all,” Hillsboro School District Superintendent Mike Scott said in a May 6 announcement about hiring Olivar as Hillsboro High’s assistant principal. “I am confident she will be an excellent fit for Hilhi.”

Olivar prides herself in not only executing inclusive practices with sky-high expectations for all, but in striving for social change. In fact, despite the pandemic’s many sorrowful drawbacks, the resulting quarantine has offered opportunities to learn how to better support historically underserved populations within the student body, she said.

She said greater access to technology is critical, and her district has distributed laptops to all high school seniors and ensured that as many families in the school district as possible had access to laptops and WiFi hotspots. Teachers have been calling all of their students every week, so communication has also improved because of the quarantine.

“It’s opening conversations on how to continue providing quality education that is public, free and accessible to all of our students,” Olivar said.

She said such conversations are critical for catalyzing change.

“Relationships and connections are the main ingredients of equity,” Olivar said. “You cannot provide equity to people you don’t know. You can’t provide equity for what you think people need to know.”

Photo 1: MariaEugenia Olivar cuddles her middle child, Antonio, 15. Photo courtesy of Olivar

Photo 2: MariaEugenia Olivar enjoys as much free time as possible with her beloved family. From left to right: Olivar's husband, Victor Zabala; their kids, Victoria, 5, and Gilberto, 15; and Olivar. From left to right: Olivar's husband, Victor Zabala; their kids, Victoria, 5, and Gilberto, 15; and Olivar. Photo courtesy of Olivar

Photo 3: From left to right: College of Education (COE) Associate Professors Susan Carlile and Deborah Peterson are not only MariaEugenia Olivar's mentors, but also among the authors of a book published in 2019, “The Educational Leader's Guide to Improvement Science: Data, Design and Cases for Reflection.” Photo by Jillian Daley

Photo 4: MariaEugenia Olivar, a PSU grad, has wings on the slope and in her career, advocating for inclusivity and equity for students. Photo courtesy of Olivar

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