A Third-Generation Latina Finds Connection through Language

Emily Tilano in campus on her graduation day
Rhode Island College Impact

"Through the program I was able to find my voice and discover my passion for helping others.”

Emily Tilano ’21 is a third-generation Colombian-Latina. She was born and raised in Rhode Island after her grandparents emigrated to the United States from Colombia in 1969.

For most people who identify as Latinx in this country, learning English is a necessity, but it was Tilano’s first language. For her, learning Spanish was a must-do – not only as a way to return to her roots, but to be able to connect with her grandparents. “With my grandparents only speaking Spanish, it was very important that I could communicate with them,” she says. “I’m still improving it.” 

Part of learning her grandparents’ native language was enrolling in Spanish literature classes, both in high school and also at RIC. “I got to read all the classic literature like ‘Don Quixote’ and short stories from different writers, which helped to further grow my Spanish,” she recalls. At home her parents helped reinforce that ability, and going to visit her grandparents’ hometown in Colombia helped her to speak and understand Spanish better.

Emily with her grandfather facing each other
Emily Tilano and her grandfather

Tilano feels that being bilingual and keeping her culture, customs and language alive is beneficial not only in her profession, but on a personal level. “I think that bilingualism is a powerful thing because you get to communicate with two different cultures, you get to cross over those barriers and learn about them and combine them as a whole,” she says.

That desire to affirm and value her heritage inspired her to help English learners. For over five years, Tilano has been supporting and assisting Woonsocket High School multilingual language learners (MLLs) in diverse subjects. She often works with those with a lower level of English, either translating for them or making sure they are understanding their teachers and the assignments, “while also helping them grow into the adults that they are trying to become,” she adds. 

She explains that she has met a significant number of students with a wide variety of Latinx backgrounds and cultures. “It has been a rewarding experience because some of them come back and tell me, ‘Miss, you have inspired me to go to college,’” she says. “It just means the world to me when they tell me things like that or when they simply say a ‘Thank you!’ for helping them with a class that they were struggling with.”

Tilano’s Spanish knowledge has not only been helpful to young people. It also brought her to doing an internship at CareLink RI serving the geriatric population. “What was nice there is that there were a lot of Hispanics, so I was able to communicate with them effectively,” she explains. “I helped the elderly learn how to use technology, smartphones, tablets, and all those gadgets.” 

She feels that the best way to foster Spanish-English bilingualism and to place more value on it in higher education is to provide people – especially children – with more exposure and examples of Hispanic role models. “This will be beneficial and set a pattern. I feel that just by having more exposure, kids can say, ‘Wow! I want to be just like them,’ or think, ‘If they can do this, I can do this, too,’” she says. “Having those role models will help them a lot.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in community and public health promotion (CPHP) from RIC, Tilano is now starting her master’s degree in public health (MPH) in epidemiology and biostatistics at Tufts University. 

She firmly believes that her undergraduate degree, and her work with the students and the community is setting a great example for the generations to come. “A Latina going into science is not very common, but thankfully now it’ll start to become more familiar to see Latina women going into careers like engineering or, like me, into epidemiology,” she says. 

Tilano is thankful for her experience at RIC, which helped her find her career path. “I started at RIC in a different field, but I learned more about the CPHP program and it all fit my interests,” she recalls. “What I loved most about it is that you are able to make a difference in a community.