Entering the childhood home of Margarida Da Graca was like straddling the border between two different countries.
Her immigrant parents spoke their native language, a Portuguese dialect of Creole, and Da Graca carried out the conversation while responding in English. Her friends laughed at the unconventional family dynamic.
“There were different cultural norms that I had to follow that are based on gender and certain levels of respect that I have to give my parents and how I address them,” she said.
Her personal story of balancing cultures at a young age has helped Da Graca succeed in her position as the assistant director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Lehigh. She has now transitioned into her new role as the interim director of the office.
Da Graca moved to the United States from Lisbon, Portugal, when she was only a few years old. Her parents are both from the islands of Cape Verde, located off the coast of West Africa.
Up until her move to Lehigh more than three years ago, Da Graca had never truly left what she considers to be her home state — Rhode Island. Her parents, who she talks to every day, still live there.
She didn’t travel far from home in order to attend college. She attended the University of Rhode Island, where she majored in communication and juggled three minors in leadership, Africana studies and biology. The biology minor is a result of 3 1/2 years of studying the discipline before she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to pursue.
As a first-generation college student, Da Graca felt the pressure to succeed. She eventually found her passion in communications and graduated after a total of five years. She was able to channel her experience into helping students in similar positions when she spent two years working at a non-profit college access program.
Eventually, Da Graca found herself a little further from home — she attended the American Society for Public Administration Conference in Las Vegas where she met and interviewed with Tyrone Russell, the previous director of Lehigh’s Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Three rounds of interviews later, Da Graca prepared herself for a new chapter in her story: the big move to Pennsylvania.
Brenda Martinez, who is now a graduate assistant for the Office of Multicultural Affairs, was a junior when Da Graca first stepped into Lehigh’s multicultural room.
Many of the students who spent time in the M-room weren’t excited about Da Graca’s arrival, Martinez said. They weren’t yet ready to make the adjustment from the departure of the previous assistant director, Courtney Addison.
“There was no fear in (Da Graca), and that was very different from (Addison),” Martinez said. “That kind of changed a lot of our minds, and we loved (Da Graca) off the bat because of the energy that she constantly put out.”
Since moving into the role of interim director after Russell’s departure this past May, Da Graca has worked to put her own spin on the office goals to make them connect deeper with her. She said the students are the reason she wakes up every morning.
“We — as an office — we can do anything and everything, but if it’s not what really attracts you or speaks to who you are or helps you develop that, then it’s kind of pointless,” Da Graca said.
Da Graca’s philosophy is all about getting to know the individuals she spends time working with.
She emphasizes the importance of sharing her story with others, while learning their stories in return. She believes learning about others — their motivations, their origins, their passions — can help them feel like a more valued member of the community.
“If I understand your story, I understand how to advocate for you and hopefully create some change at whatever level that is,” Da Graca said.
Freddy Coleman, ’17, first met Da Graca in a different setting, as his group leader for LeaderShape after his first year at Lehigh. Since then, he’s worked with her in his role as a diversity recruitment intern for admissions.
Coleman said meeting with Da Graca is always calm and laid back while still getting the job done.
“She always has a smile on her face,” he said. “She’s ready to work, ready to see what we want to do and then support us that way.”
Martinez said one new thing Da Graca has brought to the table is her personality. She allows everyone to play a role and feel like they’re a leader, Martinez said. There’s no hierarchy in the office when Da Graca is in charge.
Da Graca has been able to attract students who may not usually be interested in the work the Office of Multicultural Affairs does.
“Students are constantly looking for her,” Martinez said. “Students are constantly in her office, pouring their hearts out. She serves as a confidant for a lot of students.”
Going forward, Da Graca plans to continue her approach to affect the lives of as many students as possible. Her ability to share her story and help students find a home on campus is what she hopes will make an impact on the Lehigh community and beyond.
“All of these people have helped you write every line of your story,” she said. “I tell students I don’t care if I’m a period, or if I become a footnote, or if I don’t even make it into your book. Just knowing that you’re willing to write the next page because you entered our space . . . that’s good enough for me.”