MY MENTORS / 1. Matilda Raffa Cuomo - A Most Inspiring Woman
When Governor Mario Cuomo sadly passed away in January of this year, I suddenly started thinking about his wife Matilda and all that she has taught me. Every New Yorker knows the great Governor Mario Cuomo, but not everyone knows how lucky a man he was to have Matilda next to him.
It is often said that behind every great man there is always a great woman. Indeed Matilda is a woman who did not give up her career as she followed her husband’s: instead, she embraced her husband’s career and found her own way to express herself through the projects that she created and supported. Together they have built a wonderful family and made great contributions to society. She played a very important role in her husband’s life and in many other lives, including mine.
I had the privilege to get to know Matilda, and remember very well the first time we met. It happened a few months after my arrival in New York in September 2010. She came to visit the Consul General together with Aileen Sirey Riotto, the President of the National Organization of Italian American Women (NOIAW). Having just arrived, I did not know much about the Italian-American community or its numerous organizations. But I vividly remember all the meetings that I had during my first few months in New York.
Everything was new to me; I was fascinated by the spontaneity of those who lived and worked in New York. Although I knew Matilda Cuomo by name, I was immediately struck by her presence, her welcoming smile, and her humble way of interacting with people. Throughout our first meeting, she talked passionately about Mentoring USA, the project that she chaired in 1987 when her husband Mario Cuomo was Governor of the State of New York, and that she continued to nurture and support over the years. The program was developed in response to New York’s alarming school dropout rates and increase in teenage pregnancy. Volunteer mentors were trained, screened, and matched with children in New York Schools. She wanted to expand the project to Italy, in Campania, the region where her husband’s father was born. She spoke with such enthusiasm and passion about the importance of mentors for disadvantaged young people. Mentoring has always been her mission, and, above all, her vision. Through Mentoring USA, she has assisted thousands of young people, proving to be a distinguished advocate of women, children and families.
Matilda was the first person who made me think of mentors in a way far different from what I had been accustomed to in my upbringing in Italy. During my four years in New York I learned on my own the meaning and importance of having mentors in your life for your personal and professional growth. I was very lucky to have met some special ones. I did not look for them: they came to me, and they embraced and guided me throughout my tenure in America. I have never experienced anything similar in Italy. Yet I would have loved to have had someone who could have guided me in my choices. Someone who could have encouraged my aspirations. Someone who could have understood and guided my inclinations. I am very grateful to my parents who allowed me to dream and to make my choices without any conditioning, despite the fact that my expectations were overwhelming for them. Thanks to my mentors, I now know that my dreams can be even bigger. They taught me that dreams have no ceiling, and that life can offer different paths thanks to the guidance of wiser persons who assist you in your choices. Matilda knows it very well and has dedicated her life to this objective. In American culture, people strongly believe in mentoring younger generations: it is a social responsibility. It is part of the principle of giving something back to society. We should also do the same in Italy. I feel so grateful to all my mentors. They helped me to look more closely at myself, to believe in myself and to boost my self-confidence. Little by little, always hearing their voices as I make my choices, I became more self-aware and able to decide who I want to be.
Leading by example
Matilda Cuomo will always be one of my mentors, a very special one and not just to me. She proved to be an excellent mentor, first and foremost to her family with her wonderful and accomplished children. Over the years, I had the opportunity to meet her several times, to get to know her better, and to watch her play an important role in the Italian-American community. She leads by example: I watched her move within the various worlds she created for the Italian-American community in New York. In her role in Mentoring USA, Cuomo continues to be a teacher to many people. She was a founding member of NOIAW. She created a special project for the State of New York, “Due case, una tradizione,” an exchange program between New York State and Italy for high school and college students. She has always been a great promoter of the Italian language and a supporter for the reintroduction of the Italian Language in the high school Advanced Placement Program. She still works very hard to keep alive her Italian heritage.
The importance of humility
Through her extraordinary example and commitment, I have learned many things.
She taught me that everyone defines herself and her role in society through concrete action. She taught me that you must work hard: and she continues to do just that both graciously and brilliantly. She taught me that balance is the secret to having it all without renouncing a woman’s role as a great mother. But, first of all, she taught me the importance and strength of humility. Matilda always welcomes everybody with a disarming, sincere smile, making you feel part of her world immediately. This is a very special and precious gift.
Cara Matilda, thank you for mentoring and inspiring me.