What Makes Us Different is What Makes Us Unique: A Conversation with the U.S. Secretary of Education and Marissa Cardona

February 05, 2024
Submitted By: Office of Marketing and Communication
The Cardonas with UHart President Mulready and Hillyer Faculty Member Noel Casiano
The Cardonas with Acting President Mulready (second from left) and Hillyer's Noel Casiano (far right)
Participants on stage in Wilde Auditorium
Engaged participants and audience members in Wilde Auditorium last Friday.

United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona interrupted his own comments for a brief moment at the University of Hartford on Friday, Feb. 2, to say “Hi, buddy” to a member of the audience. Cardona, with his wife, Marissa Perez Cardona, a College and Career Coordinator, were at the Wilde Auditorium to speak on diversity, particularly as is relates to their own lives and careers. But when the secretary noticed a particular face in the crowd out of the dozens of Wilde attendees, he was compelled to stop and say hello. 

Personable and assured, Cardona embraced the audience in a way that made him appear as much a neighbor as an official of the Biden administration. Indeed, he is a neighbor, having been raised in Meriden, Connecticut, where he also began his career as a fourth-grade teacher. In 2003, when he was just 27 years old, Cardona became the youngest elementary school principal in the state.

“We measure success by our service to others,” said Cardona, whose own service included two years as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Education. He spoke with delight to the fact that it is his background—as a child whose family came from Puerto Rico— that provided the key to his motivation to get ahead in his career. “What makes us different is what makes us unique,” he said.

The event in Wilde Auditorium, officially titled “Prosperity, Power, and Progress: The Significant Strides Made by the Latinx/Hispanic Community,” was sponsored by the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement. UHart Acting President Stephen Mulready first introduced Assistant Professor Noel Casiano, who teaches psychology and human services at Hillyer College. Casiano, who has known Cardona for 30 years, posed a series of questions to the Cardonas to elicit their views on topics that included advice for minority populations, ways to get ahead, and the importance of role models.

“Never forget where you came from,” Marissa Perez Cardona said, decisively echoing what her husband had previously shared. My mother was my biggest role model,” she said, “because she instilled in me faith, family, and a passion for education.”

As Secretary of Education, Cardona does not shy away from contentious issues or strong opinions, which is one reason he is so well respected. “What used to be done in shade is now done in sunlight,” he said, referring to some of the documented behaviors and instances that have taken place across the country. But he assured the Wilde audience that, in his words, he’ll gladly go toe-to-toe with anyone to address unfair or unethical policies and actions, whether it has to do with LGBTQ issues, viewpoints on slavery, or dozens of other concerns that affect the quality of education coast to coast.

As for his own role models, Cardona cited his grandparents, whose courage to leave Puerto Rico for an uncertain future in Connecticut eventually, in a way, led to President Biden naming Cardona as America’s 12th Secretary of Education.

Cardona mentioned that the U.S. education system needs an overhaul. “New life needs to be breathed into it,” he said, explaining that it will take various kinds of power and influence to inspire that kind of change. “But bilingualism and biculturalism is a kind of power,” he added. “In fact, it’s a superpower.”