Latino Leader Benefits from Immaculata’s Supportive Ed.D. Program
When Ferdinand Surita enrolled in Immaculata University’s Doctor of Education in educational leadership and administration program in 2017, he had doubts that he could complete his degree. He knew what people said: if you’re in a doctoral program, you have to give up your life. He also knew the numbers. On average 50% of students who begin a doctoral program drop out.
However, his experience at Immaculata—where the retention rate for graduate students is 92% from fall 2022 to spring 2023—dispelled that statistic. Although the program was rigorous, he was relieved to discover that he didn’t have to “give up his life” while pursuing his degree. Instead, he thrived in the supportive and encouraging environment of the cohort-based program, completed his doctorate degree, and will walk across the commencement stage on May 12.
Although Surita’s education journey has been relatively smooth, his life hasn’t been without challenges.
As a Latino child growing up in the South Bronx, Surita’s mother was pregnant when his father died of leukemia before he was born. He knows that his life could have taken a much different path. Every day he witnessed the brutal reality of poverty, drugs and street gangs. Violence permeated his childhood, and he endured the pain when friends succumbed to hopelessness. But Surita knew he could do better for himself.
“I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be a victor,” he told himself.
Using this mantra, Surita earned his undergraduate degree in finance from St. John’s University and began a career in the financial industry. He worked his way from staff accountant at Pace University to financial analyst at New York University Medical Center, and eventually as senior accountant at Lehigh University’s Agility Forum, which brought him to Pennsylvania in 1990 with his wife.
Seeing a need to serve others in his newly adopted community, he became the director of finance and administration for the Allentown Rescue Mission for homeless men and also began substitute teaching for at-risk students, which Surita refers to as at-promise students, through an alternate educational program connected to the Allentown School District (ASD) called Communities in Schools. He discovered his passion for teaching and earned a master’s degree from DeSales University in special education, along with a certificate in English as a Second Language Program Specialist. He then earned his second master’s degree in educational leadership from Lehigh University and was hired as an assistant principal for the ASD.
When he started teaching 20 years ago, students of color made up a large proportion of the student population, but they were disproportionately disciplined–encountering much more of the infractions. In his experience and through his doctoral research, he discovered the downward spiral that students who are suspended often follow: lose instruction time; get behind in learning; disengage from classes and the community; drop out of school altogether and many end up in the school to prison pipeline.
“It’s triple punishment and it spoke to my heart,” Surita admitted.
Wanting to help, he knew these students needed more than just encouragement; they needed action. As a result, Surita founded the Latino Leadership Club over ten years ago. The club started to help the Latino community complete the FAFSA (required paperwork for college financial aid). They launched a successful financial aid night for Spanish-speaking families, where parents were able to ask questions and be mentored through the process of applying for student aid.
“Their child was going to be the first child in their family to attend college, so they wanted to find out ‘why do I have to give my tax information? Why do I have to give my social security number?’” Surita explained. Providing a safe place to ask questions helped build trust and self-esteem for the Latino community. The Latino Leadership Club also offered scholarships for college textbooks. Around the same time, Surita was the co-creator of the Multicultural Student Leadership Conference held annually at Lehigh University. Over ten years, the conference served approximately 1,400 students.
With the success and growth of these initiatives, Surita then launched Common Ground, a mentoring program that uses students from the Latino Leadership Club to mentor middle school students. He realized that the older students would have more credibility and could easily relate to the younger students. It was also a way for them to give back and serve as role models too. Surita promoted the natural connectivity between the students–the “I sat in your shoes and if I can do it, so can you,” dogma to great effect. He also wanted the students to dream with their eyes open, not closed.
Throughout Surita’s career at ASD, he continues to touch the lives of many students, either in his earlier roles as a special education teacher and assistant principal or in his current role as a teacher for the large population of English language learners. Surita remembers one evening when he was having dinner with his wife, a former student recognized him and approached his table, “I just wanted to tell you thank you. Thank you for the words that you spoke to me when I was a student–and to this day, it is those words that has impacted my life to make me the woman I am today and the wife and mother I am today,” he relayed with tearful humility. She expressed to Surita that when she was wrong, he had spoken to her with compassion and caring.
It is his compassionate nature that has gained Surita the respect from his former students who often publicly praise him to the next generation of pupils. One former student instructed her child, who was now being taught by Surita, “See this man? I love this man. Whatever he says, you do.’”
Long-time Immaculata education faculty member Joseph Corabi, Ed.D., who had Surita in his classes and served as his dissertation chair, stated, “His experiences as a young man growing up in the South Bronx has given him the credibility to provide guidance to students in similar situations.” Corabi saw that he understood the wants and needs of his students and was willing to advocate for them and the many challenges they face.
In addition to his Ed.D. classes and academic research, Surita witnesses the challenges facing the future of education across the country. He notices the teacher gap and the achievement gap, especially related to the “haves-and-have-nots” students. He recognizes that mental health issues are important to assuring student success. Inequity in student disciplinary actions is still a concern, as is filling the need to hire teachers of color for an expanding diverse student population. For Surita, one major component in overcoming these obstacles is building relationships with staff, students and with the larger community.
For his support for and advocacy of students, especially Latino students, Surita was recently named one of the Power 100 Who’s Who in Latino Pennsylvania. Surita has come a long way from the young man who decided he wanted something better for himself. Now that he has completed his doctorate degree, he can continue his God given purpose: his “why.”