West Valley English Instructor Dr. Dulce Gray Pays It Forward to WVC Students
By Cosette Velazquez
Dr. Dulce Maria Gray has come a long way since immigrating to the U.S. as a child. She grew up in the Bronx with little money, but overcame all obstacles and today she has her Ph.D. She has traveled the world, and is an inspiration to many here at West Valley College. Her perseverance, and willingness to ask for support helped her achieve all that she has.
Dr. Gray is an English and Women and Gender Studies Instructor at West Valley College. She has a doctorate in Cultural Studies with several areas of specialization, a master’s degree in 19th Century British Literature, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Secondary Education.
She did not always know that she wanted to teach. She grew up in the Bronx, New York after immigrating here from the Dominican Republic with her family. She wanted to attend Cornell after high school, but money was an issue, and her parents weren’t all that comfortable with her moving so far away from the Bronx. Instead, she enrolled in LIM College, Laboratory of Fashion Merchandising, on a scholarship. This was a two-year program equivalent to a community college, but it was private and expensive.
She graduated from LIM, worked in the fashion industry for seven years, and ultimately decided that it wasn’t for her. She had some money saved up and decided to quit her job and enrolled in Lehman College to pursue a new path. Lehman College was a public school and very affordable at the time. Going into Lehman College, she was living on her own, had bills to pay, and a niece to look out for. Dr. Gray’s sister had a baby when she was young and joined the Marines, leaving her and her mother responsible for tending to the child.
Luckily, when she enrolled at Lehman, she was informed of a program the college offered for returning adult women. She joined their SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge), a New York State funded academic support program very similar to West Valley’s EOPS.
Although Dr. Gray had felt a sense of achievement graduating from LIM and had worked in the fashion industry successfully for seven years, the thought of being at a university intimidated her. She says that the most important thing that program did was help her feel like she belonged on that campus. “The idea of being at a university was only a dream and it wasn’t a clear dream in my mind because I had only read about it. We didn’t have any family members around as new immigrants in the city, and I didn’t know anyone who had attended university,” explained Gray.
Through the SEEK Program, she was able to start her new academic journey with six extra units for life experience, received money for textbooks, weekly tutoring sessions, and a lot of individual guidance. Dr. Gray wasn’t sure what she wanted to major in; she knew she “hated fashion and that she liked to read,” explained Gray. One of her counselors encouraged her to take some English classes and pursue teaching.
“Mind you, I’m an immigrant and at that time I spoke English well, but I had arrived at the age of eleven, so to major in English was a little daunting – but she was very encouraging,” commented Gray.
SEEK had all kinds of events for their students and Dr. Gray would bring her niece along with her. “She’s like a daughter to me. I used to bring my little girl with me to my classes, she sat with me and did her drawings,” said Gray. The program was very welcoming to her. At one point they even opened a childcare service.
The SEEK Program also provided part-time employment. Dr. Gray was able to work at the Lehman College Library for two years while she finished her undergraduate/BA program.
“At that time, this program was earth-shattering because no such things existed in 1982. Nobody else had it,” said Gray.
Dr. Carol Sicherman’s mentorship at Lehman made the biggest difference for Dr. Gray as a student. Dr. Gray was quite shy, but Dr. Sicherman brought her into the conversation, made her feel engaged and presented her with grand ideas that stimulated her. “She knew my name, called me by my proper name, asked me what I wanted to be called… she made me feel like a human being,” explained Gray.
Dr. Gray was seven years older than all her peers. “I always had my little girl with me, and I didn’t feel like the younger people who were there,” said Gray.
Dr. Sicherman constantly opened new doors for Dr. Gray. Throughout her academic journey, Dr. Sicherman handed her physical applications to scholarships, study abroad programs, a master’s program that fit what she wanted to pursue, and later an application to pursue her doctorate. Thanks to her mentor’s support, Dr. Gray took the plunge and studied abroad in Spain, then went off to study at the University of Oxford, received her master’s degree and her doctorate degree.
She graduated with a B.A. in English and Secondary Education. Lehman College hosted a celebration for all graduates and their families. “I really liked that they cared about inviting my family,” commented Gray.
“I wouldn’t have finished the education that has made my life without the early support and guidance of Dr. Sicherman. Her appreciation for my humanity and her real tangible help made a huge difference,” explained Gray.
That education completely changed her socioeconomic standing. She was able to buy a house, take care of her parents, and provide for her niece.
Dr. Gray values travel personally and professionally, as it is a way for her to continue to learn. She initiated and designed West Valley’s Travel Abroad Program because she believes in the power of experiential learning and teaching. In the summer of 2018, she led a service-learning tour in the Dominican Republic. The students worked with the Mariposa DR Foundation, an organization that provides after-school programs and support for young girls.
During the fall 2018 semester, Dr. Gray was on leave from West Valley and taught lower-level and upper-level literature courses. She served as the Director of the Writing Center at Semester at Sea. She sailed around the world and in each of the 12 countries that the ship visited, Dr. Gray led student tours.
When asked why she chose to work at a community college, Dr. Gray explained that she taught at a research university for 8 years before moving to California, and the pressure to publish was intense. “I needed to decrease that pressure to be able to take care of my family, and I thought that focusing on teaching, which I love, would be less stressful. Seventeen years later, I know that the stress and demands are not less in the community college; they are just different. I have truly enjoyed teaching in the community college. My role as a professor feels more urgent, more needed, and very impactful,” said Gray.
Here at West Valley College, Dr. Gray meets a lot of students who are in similar circumstances she faced such as being a first-generation student, an immigrant, and low-income. She enjoys teaching them very much. “I want them to feel that they belong in the college,” commented Gray.
When asked what advice she gives to her students, she explained the importance of seeking help, of connecting with programs like EOPS, and connecting with professors because they can be a wealth of information to students. "It’s a different world today from when I went to college. I try very hard to help new immigrants, especially young women, by encouraging them to make connections with human beings at the college that can provide the extra help and support that is key to their success. I try to be as accessible to them as I can,” said Gray.
One of Dr. Gray’s students at West Valley, Jonathan Wong, was the only male-identifying student in one of Dr. Gray’s Women and Gender Studies courses. He says, “as a student she supported me and even inspired me to look into Women and Gender politics as part of my history degree,” said Wong. They would later meet again as fellow students on a trip abroad to Paris and Normandy. Dr. Gray was very supportive of Jonathan and even wrote him a letter of recommendation to accompany his university applications.
“I am invested in the life of the mind. I love to teach because it affords me the opportunity to engage students from all walks of life, and to be their partner as they grow intellectually and as they meet their goals. I believe in the power of higher education to transform lives, and if I can help students to transform their lives, then I am doing my part to improve our world.” -- Dr. Dulce María Gray
March 30, 2021