When Suzanne Raposo started kindergarten, she couldn’t speak English, and her teachers couldn’t speak Portuguese. She remembers her teacher asking her to take out a pencil and not being able to find her “thing,” the word she used to refer to her pencil box and just about everything else. Nearly in tears, she tried to tell her teacher that her pencil box was missing. Language proved to be a barrier.
The Raposos came to Fall River, Mass., in 1980 from Portugal. Although Suzanne and two of her sisters were born here in the United States, her older sister and other family members were all born in St. Michaels in the Azores. Portuguese was the language of the household — and the language of the community for that matter.
“We didn’t have much, I realize now,” Suzanne Raposo says. “I shared a bedroom with my two older sisters and my grandmother. We all slept on the same bed, horizontally, until my parents could afford to get more bedroom furniture.”
Until they could get established, the family lived in a tenement house owned by an uncle.
“My grandmother lived with us, and I consider her my second mother, as do my sisters,” Raposo adds. “She does the housework and she never stops. She passed that work ethic onto her children and her grandchildren.”
Raposo’s father took a job painting boats in Rhode Island, and her mother went to work in a factory. They built their lives here, one step at a time and without accepting handouts.
To this day, Raposo says she doesn’t like to ask for help. “If we wanted to buy a car, we worked for it. If we wanted to buy an outfit, we had to buy the outfit ourselves.” She keeps a picture of herself as a youngster wearing her hand-me-downs to remind her of where she came from.
“There are a lot of kids out there who need our help. That’s why I’m so involved in an annual holiday party for underprivileged kids. I know what that feels like.” (To read more about it, click here.)
Raposo attended parochial school for nine years. By the fifth grade, her language skills had improved and so did her grades.
“Around fifth grade, I wanted to get into sports. Another barrier,” she points out. “In Portuguese culture, women don’t play sports. Women stay in the house, they cook, they clean and they pretty much do everything for their husbands. You get out of high school, you find a man, you get married and you start a family.”
Raposo remembers fighting the home culture just to be able to go outside and play. She remembers the gossip when she was spotted playing basketball at the playground.
During her freshman year at Diman Regional Vocational Technical School, she decided to do some career exploring. She wanted to get involved in the decorating program until she had a chance to try out the equipment in the precision machining lab. She loved it. But, the choice didn’t come without its challenges. She was the only girl in the class, and the boys weren’t exactly welcoming.
Raposo remembers being surprised, however, when her parents didn’t object.
“I don’t think they ever really fully understood why I was taking this path, and I’m not sure they do now, but they got to the point where they trusted me.”
She won over her folks and the guys in her classes, too. Both her teachers and her classmates noticed her basketball skills and encouraged her. Eventually, she ran cross-country, played basketball, ran the mile and the quarter mile and threw the discus and javelin for spring track. In her junior year, she was undefeated in the league in javelin throwing — no small thing for a 5-foot-tall girl throwing a spear measuring more than 7 feet long.
Through her involvement with the Bristol County Tech Prep Consortium and its Women in Technology program, Raposo attended school and worked at Texas Instruments. During her junior year, she and her tech-prep teammates designed a fixture to test multiple circuit breakers instead of one at a time. They presented their project to Texas Instruments at the end of the year, and the project was approved for development. In her senior year, as a computer numerical control (CNC) operator, she manufactured the device from the blueprints the team had drawn up. The tester is now in use at a facility in Mexico.
Raposo was hired by Texas Instruments as a CNC operator. She continued to work there for several years until the plant closed and moved its operations to Mexico, Malaysia and China.
In the meantime, Raposo had joined SkillsUSA and was intrigued by the savvy of the Massachusetts state officers. She decided run for a state office but didn’t make it. Then, after some coaxing, she ran again and was elected state president. She traveled throughout the state, making contacts and speaking on behalf of SkillsUSA and tech prep, experiences that would prove to pay off.
In her senior year of high school, Raposo wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next. She did know she didn’t want to waste what little funds she had on college classes she wouldn’t need. At her guidance counselor’s urging, she reviewed the catalog for Bristol Community College (BCC) in Fall River. She liked the business administration program and enrolled. She had great grades and earned enough scholarship money to get her though the next two years.
Continuing to travel and speak on behalf of tech prep and SkillsUSA, Raposo maintained a straight-A average. After BCC’s president heard one of those speeches, he nominated her to be the college’s valedictorian. She was chosen, and with that honor came a full, two-year scholarship to the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Dartmouth College of Business.
“That helped,” Raposo says. “I was working four jobs at the time and had moved from a CNC operator to full-time production planner at Texas Instruments. I worked there 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. I took any hours that I could work. I worked at Express, a retail store, I worked at Things Remembered, and I did some work as a dental assistant and I sold Avon.”
Dental assistant? She got that job after giving a speech before Vietnam veterans. The ceremony honored those who had left school to go to war and never had the chance to attend their own graduations. The daughter of one of those vets was married to a dentist, and after the event they talked to Raposo and later called the high school to offer her a job.
The business of college
After two years at UMass, Raposo graduated summa cum laude with a degree in business and information systems. She was named to Beta Gamma Sigma, a national honor society for students in business programs, and Phi Theta Kappa, the international society of two-year colleges. She also received an award for having the highest GPA among transfer students at the university.
But in that final year, unfortunately, the Texas Instruments plant was closing. Raposo discussed the situation with Karen Ward, association director for SkillsUSA Massachusetts. She told Ward she was envious because the director got to work with high school students.
“A few months later, Karen called me and asked me if I was serious about wanting to work with kids, and she told me she had an opportunity for me,” Raposo says. “She thought I’d be great for the job. I thought it was a great idea.” Raposo signed on as a program development specialist for SkillsUSA Massachusetts, a position she enjoys to this day.
For someone in her early 20s, Raposo has explored many things, many of which she never dreamed of as a child having trouble with the English language. But when asked if she’s found her thing, she responds, “I don’t think I’ll ever find my ‘thing.’ Because I always want to explore something new. I always want to learn. Every day my goal is to learn something new or read something new.
“It’s not necessarily the career that is my ‘thing.’ It starts with my family. To me, they’re more important than a career. But right now, I love where I’m at. I have a healthy family and great friends and a good job. You can’t ask for anything more.”