Ridgefield superintendent's upbringing as child of poor immigrants inspired her to pursue education

RIDGEFIELD — It was 2005 and Susie Da Silva was on stage in the auditorium at Central Connecticut State University. As her parents, husband and daughter looked on, Da Silva received her doctorate degree in elementary and bilingual education.

Da Silva is not only the first person in her family to receive a doctorate, but the first in her family to complete college. Her parents, who were poor, uneducated farmers in Portugal, came to the United States in 1974 when her mother was six months pregnant with her. They sought a better life and medical care for her sister, who was very sick. She said her parents have always instilled in her the importance of getting an education and to appreciate all opportunities she was given.

"My parents were born and raised incredibly poor (in) a very, very small village in Portugal called Monteiros," said Da Silva, who is 48 and the youngest of four siblings. "They didn't have an education. My mother would sometimes go two to three days a week to school but otherwise she had to be tending the cows and the sheep and the land. Whatever food they had, it's because they grew it. They often went hungry."

In the United States, Da Silva's parents worked several jobs in factories while she struggled to learn English. When she was old enough to work, she also worked many jobs while continuing to move up the ranks in her career.

Now, Da Silva is marking three years since being hired as superintendent of schools in Ridgefield, an affluent Fairfield County town with 18 public schools and 4,600 students, according to state data.

Prior to coming to Ridgefield, she served as assistant superintendent in Darien, principal at Kings Highway Elementary School in Westport, principal at Woodrow Wilson School in Waterbury and as a supervising vice principal in Waterbury prior.

Ray Melendez, who was a custodian at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School, said Da Silva cared about all students as if they were her own children.

He said not only did she know all 300-plus kids by name, but she knew their home life.

"If the kids had problems, if they needed clothing, if they needed food, she would get up, pull out her credit card — 'I'm going shopping,'" said Melendez, who is now supervisor of reservoir watersheds in Thomaston. "The stuff that woman did is amazing. It was a huge loss for the city of Waterbury when she left."

Life in Portugal

Da Silva's siblings were all born at home with no doctor or medical care of any kind. She said when her brother was born, her parents had to call a doctor who traveled to their village from a city to make the trip.

"They weren't sure if it was going be my brother or my mother that was going to pass and somehow both of them survived," she said. 

When her sister, Florbela, was born, she was very sick, and was still sick as a toddler, Da Silva said.

"(My family) knew there was something wrong with her but there was no doctors. They noticed that like her color was blue. She was very lethargic, vomiting, sleeping a lot," Da Silva said.

While her family briefly considered moving to Germany, her mother's sister, who had come to Waterbury from Portugal five years prior, encouraged Da Silva's mother to join her. 

"They kept saying to my mom that the United States had better doctors than Germany, and maybe they could help my sister here because I think there was just an assumption she would die," Da Silva said. "Because my aunt was in the United States for five years, she had the ability to petition to bring others to the U.S. So my aunt petitioned for my mom to come."

Coming to America

In August of 1974, Da Silva's parents and siblings made the journey to America. Her mother was six months pregnant with her.

"My mom was afraid because they were here on a Green Card. She was afraid that (officials) would notice that she was pregnant and not let them come over, so she hid her pregnancy." She wore clothes that covered up her stomach area.

 Once Da Silva's parents were in the U.S., they both took jobs at the same factory where Da Silva's aunt worked.

"They worked first and second and third shift," Da Silva said. 

 Her sister, who was 2, was treated at Hartford Hospital, where she was diagnosed with blue baby syndrome.

"She had a very small hole in her heart that was the size of the pin," Da Silva said, adding her sister needed multiple surgeries until she was in first grade. "She was in the hospital so much in first grade that she had to repeat the grade." 

She said her parents were helped with many challenges. 
 
"You can imagine these people have no job. They can't speak the language," she said.

Her cousins, who were very young at the time, translated for Da Silva's parents whenever they would go to the hospital.

"They're literally having a 10, 12 and 14 year old translate this complicated information," she said. "Imagine your daughter is having heart surgery and you don't know anything about it. They have these little kids translating, helping with paperwork."

Eventually, her sister's health improved — and her parents worked hard to pay all the bills, she said.

"They worked two, three jobs. They had no insurance. They paid these medical bills on their own. They paid for their first house in cash," Da Silva said. "That was how they did everything. They didn't believe in borrowing. They didn't believe in asking for help. There wasn't social services in that way."

Da Silva was the first person in her family to be born in a hospital. Right after she was born, her cousins were made her godparents and were put in charge of naming her. 

"My mother left it to them. I always joke I'm lucky I'm not named Monchhichi (a Japanese toy from the 1970s) or Cabbage Patch doll or something," she joked, adding Susie is not short for Susan or any other name. Also, she has no middle name. 

Learning English

While Da Silva's siblings took English as a second language classes, when it was time for Da Silva to go to school, there was a "stigma" around bilingual education — so she was put into mainstream classes. 

She was struggling, she said.

"I couldn't understand a single thing and there was no one there to translate for me," she said. "I didn't fully understand what was happening around me. I didn't understand the words. I remember being confused." 

While her family didn't have the financial resources to get her help with learning English, when they could, they would get books and resources from the nuns at Holy Land USA Waterbury, which has a chapel. 

When Da Silva got older, to help pay her college applications, she worked many jobs, including at Wendy's, Kmart, and Family Footcare — where she worked from age 16 until almost 30, after she began her teaching career.

'Don't ever limit yourself'

Da Silva credits her strong work ethic with her background and the values her parents instilled in her and her siblings.

"What gift do I have?" she said, in tears. "They believe you're given a gift to educate yourself. You get educated every opportunity you have. If you don't choose to go to college, that's up to you, but you continue to get smarter and smarter and smarter. Don't ever limit yourself."

She added she instills those values in her three children, who are middle- and high school age, who she has with her husband, who is from Mozambique.

She was part of Central Connecticut State University's first doctoral cohort. She's cross-certified in bilingual education and elementary education and previously taught Portuguese and Spanish.
 
 Aside from education, Da Silva said she's also passionate about topics pertaining to social justice and advocating for the oppressed and those that can't advocate for themselves.

She said going forward, she would like to give back to those that don't have the advantages that most people in the area have. 

"If they're financially or economically disadvantaged, many don't have someone that's going to advocate on their behalf," she said. "It is an area that we can all support — equity and access."

She added her upbringing influenced her to pursue a field in education.

"My parents sacrificed so much to me the gift of education. I'll never take that for granted," she said. "With a growth mindset, we can always be better in every way. While I wish my parents would have had an easier childhood, the reality is that I am who I am because of their experience."