Idalia Catalan: Coming of Age | Teachers College Columbia University

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Idalia Catalan: Coming of Age

Idalia Catalan: Coming of Age
By Joe Levine

Idalia Catalan was born in the United States, but with two parents who were immigrants – her father is Mexican, her mother Panamanian – she spoke no English when she showed up for the first day elementary school.  

“You weren’t allowed to speak Spanish at all – if you did, you got in trouble,” she recalls. “The teachers assumed you were cheating or making fun of other kids.” 

In one way, the school’s approach worked. By second grade, Catalan was fluent in English, with no trace of an accent, and had been taken out of speech classes and put in the school’s Gifted and Talented Program. This fall, at the age of 20, she enrolled at Teachers College as a master’s degree student in clinical psychology, the youngest student in the entering class.

Still, Catalan was left with questions about her bilingual experience.

“I always had to think a lot before I spoke, so I was never in a familiar zone,” she says. “There were so many times I just wanted to ask, in Spanish, ‘What does this mean?’, or ‘What is the context?’  Also, when I was younger, I felt that I grew up slower – that because I knew English and Spanish, it crammed other information out of my brain. Later on, there were advantages, but there definitely was a lag, where I had to catch up. I want to look at that kind of experience in my research on at TC.”

To that end, Catalan is taking classes such as “Clinical Issues in Families with Diverse Backgrounds,” taught by Suniya Luthar, and studying up on different research methodologies.  At this point, she’s pretty sure she wants to do qualitative work, centered on case studies of smaller groups of people.

“Each of us has so many different things in our lives that make us who we are, that for me having someone be a little piece of data in a big study doesn’t feel right,” she says.  

For now, her classes may be the least challenging part of Catalan’s TC experience. She’s living by herself in an apartment off campus while commuting home to Delaware to work a restaurant job on weekends. 

“I’ve never lived alone before – I commuted to college, and I’m used to sharing a room with my sister,” she says. 

Her schedule leaves her little time for socializing, and she’s acutely aware of being younger than her fellow students.

“During orientation, I couldn’t attend Happy Hour because I’m not legally allowed to drink. I look like I’m sixteen, and I still get carded at malls.” She smiles ruefully. “I’m proud of being the youngest student – it makes me feel smart. But a lot of the people I’m in classes with are married and have children, so we don’t have a lot in common.“

Still, she’s hopeful that classroom and research situations will create opportunities for connection.  A friend from home is coming up to live with her soon.  She talks constantly with her mom, who recently left a job in insurance to go back to law school.  And meanwhile, she’s focused on completing her MA in one year and enrolling in a Ph.D. program.

For now, though, she’s just taking it all in. “I’m surprised at where I am,” she says. “It’s gone so fast, I don’t know how I got here.”

Published Friday, Oct. 7, 2011