Women's History Month 2022: A Q&A with Haydée Cuza and Matylda Czarnecka, Two of the First Cooke Scholars
In 2002, the Cooke Foundation selected its very first class of Scholars, 70 of them women. Haydée Cuza, a transfer student coming from West Los Angeles College, was one of these Scholars. After receiving the Cooke Scholarship, she received her bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, then later her doctorate in education from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She currently serves as Director of Consulting at Nonprofit Finance Fund.
Matylda Czarnecka, another Scholar from our first ever cohort, studied anthropology and film, television, and radio at Syracuse University, and ultimately went to graduate school at New York University. Now, she owns her own leadership coaching company and lives life as a digital nomad, travelling the world while helping her clients become a better version of themselves.
To celebrate Women’s History Month, we caught up with Haydée and Matylda to see what they’ve been up to and how their experiences as some of the first Cooke Scholars have helped shape their current path.
Q: What is your professional and personal life like these days?
Haydée: These days my life is relatively calm. In mid-2020 I had a major life transformation with work. I went from working 60+ hours a week to not working at all. Luckily, my wife was able to cover our bills, which gave me the time needed to heal and recuperate, which led to the life I have today.
It’s the two of us plus a 3 ½-year-old English bulldog who we welcomed into our home in November 2021. We also have a 30-year-old daughter, a 10-year-old grandson, and a 2-year-old granddaughter that I take any opportunity to brag about. They are pretty incredible.
Professionally, after my break from work for a couple of months, I started a consulting business focused on the financial health of nonprofit organizations. I loved the freedom of consulting and was lucky to have some great clients, but in September 2021 I started a job that would allow me to continue to work with nonprofit organizations on their financial health but with the security of a national organization with an incredible reputation.
Matylda: Six years ago, I returned to NYU to train as a coach. Since then, I’ve been supporting job seekers and established professionals on their personal and professional growth journeys, helping people gain clarity on where they want to go and how to get there faster, as well as on how to become better leaders and empower those around them. Coaching was a very deliberate career change for me, and I feel extremely fortunate to have found it, as it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.
After 12 years in NYC and thanks to working remotely, last year I decided to become a “digital nomad,” and am enjoying slow travel – working in various locations for a month or more at a time. Most recently I spent three months in a Peruvian jungle town, followed by a few weeks in Mexico City. My next destinations are Washington State, followed by rural Vermont.
Q: What does the Cooke Scholar community mean to you?
Haydée: Staying connected to the Cooke Scholar community is a reminder of how valuable it was for me to get support to accomplish a bachelor’s and doctorate degree as I witness the new generation of Scholars. I love reading the updates and hope that I can participate in the in-person gatherings when I feel more safe exploring public spaces. I’ve also offered myself as a mentor and communicate with folks on LinkedIn.
Being one of the first Scholars was surreal. I was in my first year as a transfer student in a four-year institution and learned that the scholarship that allowed me to attend a private university as a transfer student would not be eligible for renewal in my senior year. I didn’t take a linear path in my education and at times my grades did not reflect my ability to succeed so I didn’t qualify for a lot of the larger, more prestigious scholarships. I hustled for scholarships. During my time in community college, I filled out dozens of applications (I treated it like a second job) but they were small – very useful and I’m grateful for them all – but they were small, and I had no idea how I would cover the tuition much less the other expenses that come with attending university.
Just at the point where I had to decide if I was going to continue my education and take on major debt, I was nominated for the Cooke scholarship. It was life-changing as a single mom to receive a scholarship that would allow me to stop working full time and focus on my academics and being a mom. I continued to work part-time but it was manageable. I graduated with high honors and with the support of the Cooke scholarship, five years later, I went on to complete a doctoral degree in education, which was not even thought of as a possibility before receiving the encouragement and support of this community.
Matylda: I am proud and grateful to be part of such a supportive, inspiring, warm, and brilliant-yet-humble community. I’ve made many friends in this community, and it’s always a delight to see familiar faces I’ve gotten to know over the years at events, and to meet new Cookie Cousins who join the family.
Q: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN ABOUT PERSEVERING IN THE FACE OF CHALLENGES IN THE WORKPLACE?
Haydée: This is a tough one because navigating as a woman is so nuanced and complex. A simple answer of ‘be true to yourself’ or ‘find a mentor’ or ‘rise above the noise’ doesn’t begin to nurture and honor the pain of working under the paternalistic ideology that permeates workspaces. As I’ve gotten older and can look back on how I managed challenges in the workplace, pertaining to my identity as a womyn, it’s been the support and love of other womyn that have gotten me through. They were not always in the workplace and unfortunately, womyn can think of each other as competition or barriers as they are climbing the ladder of success. But having a community of fierce womyn who provide a soft landing when things are tough has been invaluable.
Being a womyn in the workplace is a gift to any environment. We bring with us the nuance of skills to perform as nurturers but fit into male-dominated expectations of performance. When we come across as too soft or generous in our assessment of a situation, we are often taken advantage of or seen as having a weakness. When, in actuality, we are demonstrating great strength in our ability to see the best in people while we support them when they are struggling or seeking support.
Today, I make a conscious effort to connect with people as equals regardless of where our titles sit on the org chart. Each interaction is with the purpose of holding grace while holding firm boundaries for my wellbeing and health. I also have an unwavering equity lens that gets challenged or overly praised (those who know, know what I mean) and I’ve learned how to be true to those values without sacrificing my peace of mind. I offer this as a demonstration to everyone but especially womyn – unlearning patriarchal expectations will take a lifetime as each new challenge presents itself and we will continue to bring our femineity, masculinity, non-binary lenses to spaces so that they grow and expand back to our truest nature of community and collective love.
Matylda: Find mentors, supporters, and build strong relationships and trust with colleagues, of course, but also, find sponsors – people with access and influence who know your work and who will advocate for you behind closed doors in meetings and conversations you’re not yet privy to. No matter your line of work, it’s not about who you know, but who knows you. Make connections with people in other departments to gain insight into the big picture and become known as a trusted, perceptive collaborator.
Q: IF YOU COULD HAVE LUNCH WITH JUST ONE WOMAN FROM HISTORY, WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
Haydée: There are so many but at this moment who comes to mind is Haydée Santamaría, a Cuban revolutionary who shares my name. I want to know how she navigated fighting for freedom while men continued to oppress and deny her true place in history because of her gender. I want to know who she loved and what brought her joy. The end of her life ended in tragedy and I’d want to know how we could have held her closer and nurtured her spirit so she knew and felt how her contributions shifted a small island and the world surrounding the colonial, violent history of Cuba.
Matylda: I’d love to have lunch with physicist and chemist Marie Curie. She achieved a long list of firsts, including winning two Nobel Prizes, and, like many Cooke Scholars, she came from a background that didn’t foreshadow her success. I also feel an affinity towards her as a fellow Polish expat. I admire her ingenuity, independence and perseverance both as a person and a professional.
Q: IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME AND TALK TO YOUR YOUNGER SELF, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY?
Haydée: You are loved, you are love. The pain you endure will always be a part of who you are and although none of it was meant to be or should have ever occurred, you will be able to use your healing journey to help others and come back to loving yourself in a very beautiful way. You will accomplish things even though you are afraid to dream. You will no longer live in survival mode but in a place of peace. It won’t be easy but you will have soft places to land and build beautiful friendships. You will find workplaces that feed your soul as you contribute to a better and more humane society. You will continue to fight but not at the expense of your own serenity. You are and have always been beautiful and do not owe anyone anything – ever.
Matylda: Trust that the next step will present itself. Often, the things you worry about or plan for will be different than the ones that transpire. Use curiosity as your compass to find the path towards answers and growth.