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A Sense of Community: My Interview with Antoine Lona Adult Education's New(ish) Director



Like the previous Director of Adult Education, Antoine Lona came to Centro Romero at a challenging juncture. What is more, Antoine started right at the beginning of the grant-writing season and immediately confronted one of the most difficult tasks the director has to contend with. Throughout all of this, his infectious good attitude and upbeat personality have been an inspiration to the department. He has tackled a demanding job with aplomb and proven to be a formidable and reassuring presence around Centro Romero. I recently sat down with Antoine for a brief conversation in which we talked about (among other things) the career trajectory that brought him to the directorship. (Hint: it all started with volunteering!)

Q: Where are you from? Did you grow up in Chicago? What about your parents?

A: Let’s start with my parents. My parents both grew up in Mexico. My Dad is from Leon, Guanajuato, and my Mom is from Irapuato, Guanajuato. But they both met here in the United States. They didn’t meet in Mexico even though they are both from the same state. I grew up in northwest Indiana. They call it the region, also they call it the armpit of Indiana. (Laughs) It’s like a suburb of Chicago. Everybody there roots for the Bears and everyone there is pretty Chicago-centric. I went to school here in Chicago at Loyola University and basically stayed in Chicago since I graduated College except for a couple of years living abroad.

Q: Did you grow up in a bilingual household?

A: Yes, yes I did. My grandmother only spoke Spanish, and that’s pretty much who I learned Spanish from. My Father and Mother would also speak Spanish. Spanish and English, they both spoke both. And in Kindergarten I am told I spoke Spanish more than English and I kind of learned [English] as I went. It must have been pretty quick because I now speak better English than I do Spanish. (Laughs)

Q: Can you offer some advice to our tutors for helping parents in this same situation?

A: Bilingual Kids. What can I say about bilingual kids? What advice would I give? Definitely encourage both languages. Whatever side of the fence is the weak side, encourage that language. Even if the parents aren’t bilingual. It’s a difficult issue because sometimes the parents themselves don’t feel comfortable speaking in English. But I guess that’s the key. Even if the parents don’t speak both languages, make sure the kids don’t have any kind of hang-up about [speaking either language].

Q: Did you always know you wanted to work in education?

A: (Pauses to think) No. No, I did not. The thing that brought me to education is I always wanted to help. I always wanted to volunteer and stuff, so that led to that. But, when it first came to education, it had to do with wanting to travel. I wanted to be able to get a job and also travel abroad. I worked for about a year in Chicago before I was able to do that. But working abroad, that was when I really fell in love with it and liked it and said, this is what I want to do.

Q: How did you get started in adult education? What was your first job?

A: Volunteering. I first got started at Howard Area Center. I volunteered to help a person with a disability, and I fell in love with it there. I really liked the impact. You made an impact on somebody’s life, and they just really appreciated it, and you could really see the good you were doing. I saw this was a way you could help and really feel good about it. And the other person really appreciates it.

Q: What attracted you to working with Centro Romero?

A: At some point, a friend of mine, and I’ve forgotten who this friend was and why, but this one guy, when I was first starting my investigation into places to volunteer, he said you should try and go and volunteer at Centro Romero. It’s really good experience over there. And after a good long time of volunteering, they brought me on for Citizenship in English. The rest is history.

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Q: What has been the most challenging thing about this job so far?

A: Budgets. Budgets are hard. The way metrics are recorded for grant compliance, I don’t know, but it seems like there are a lot of different angles on the moving parts to keep funding going. So I guess I would say the most difficult thing is keeping up to date on the changes that are being made for the purposes of carrying on your grant. Because you don’t work with those people [the grant agencies] every day. The distance between you and the people who manage that grant, you need to know it so well that the distance is a problem.

Q: Do you have any big plans for the future at Centro Romero? Any goals or dreams you would like to see realized?

A: Of course! Because I’ve come back here during this time of the pandemic, my first goal would be to see things go back to normal and see classes in the building. When I was working at Erie House in Little Village, you would see the students on their break in this little room where you could make coffee. The students would be there, and they would really transform that space and make it their own. It was really good to see how that transformation happened, that sense of community, everybody helping each other to learn. So, yes. Once the pandemic’s over, I want to bring the sense of community back to Centro Romero.


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