‘Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone is Crucial to Growth:’ El Centro’s Mayenny Vazquez Aguillon on Overcoming Fear and Giving Back
Born and raised in Venezuela, Mayenny Vazquez Aguillon moved to the United States six years ago, leaving friends and family behind to begin a new chapter and advance her education and career.
Although she had earned a bachelor’s degree back home, she knew she would need to master English to reach her full potential and signed up for Catholic Charities El Centro Adult Education program, hoping to be placed in the lowest level possible.
“I was so afraid to be challenged,” she said. “I begged them to place me in a lower level.”
However, El Centro Director Marianna Geraskina saw Mayenny’s potential through her fear, encouraging her to begin at a higher ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) level.
Today, Mayenny often shares this story with students she now mentors as a full-time counselor for El Centro, reminding them that stepping outside their comfort zones is crucial to growth.
Founded in 1957, El Centro was among the first programs in the state to provide ESOL classes for adult immigrants and is consistently rated in the top tier of adult ESOL programs in the state. The program provides six levels of ESOL instruction from beginning to advanced, targeted math instruction for students in search of a college education, distance learning for working adults with busy life schedules, and support with the transition to college services.
As a counselor, Mayenny supports students through their English journeys, helping them overcome obstacles and plan their courses of study after they complete the El Centro program.
“I say to my students now, ‘I know it’s hard. I was in your shoes. I know how scary it can be to be in a different country when you don’t speak the language,’” she said.
A quick learner and motivated student, Mayenny went on to take a few additional English classes at Bunker Hill Community College after completing the El Centro program. The following year, her former teacher Geraskina reached out with news that El Centro was hiring. Mayenny wasted no time jumping on the opportunity.
“What I love about El Centro is that it reminds us we still have opportunities, and it helps us to see these options,” she said. “You have the option of changing your life in this moment. It may be hard, but it’s possible.”
Six months into her job with El Centro, Marjean Perhot, Vice President of Refugee and Immigration Services, shared an opportunity with staff to attend a two-week-long Catholic Charities USA service trip to assist migrants arriving in the border town of Laredo, Texas. When Mayenny expressed interest in going, the El Centro team quickly came together to ensure she could participate in the trip by distributing and taking on her responsibilities while she was gone—a testament to the staff’s belief in teamwork.
From stocking up on food and essential items, to cleaning and preparing the shelter for the migrants’ arrival, Mayenny and the other volunteers on the service trip worked from morning to night. Nonetheless, Mayenny said it was one of the most energizing, impactful experiences she’s ever had.
“It was magic,” she said. “Everyone was coming together to help, and no one was doing it for credit. Kids were playing with basic toys like coloring books at the shelters and they were so excited. The adults were so grateful for a simple hot shower, for a hot meal. It completely changed my perspective on life.”
After returning to Boston, Mayenny was eager to continue offering support to immigrants in any way she could, particularly unaccompanied children in need. Her passion to help make a difference led her to accept an opportunity with Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services, where she became an advocate for both unaccompanied minors and refugees.
“It was difficult seeing so many hard realities every day, but it was a beautiful and eye-opening experience,” she said.
In Mayenny’s current role at El Centro, she channels the compassion and courage she has gained from her various experiences into helping students become the best they can be, academically and personally.
In her spare time, Mayenny is pursuing a Master of Science in Business Analytics degree from Babson College, with a focus on business analytics. She says she hopes to channel the leadership, resourcefulness, and critical-thinking skills she has learned into cultivating concrete, positive change in clients’ lives.
“Sometimes, in this work, we don’t have clear solutions,” she said. “But just having someone to turn to for advice and talk through problems can make all the difference.”