Alumna Stephanie Romero on Following the Path of Her Heart to Educate Others

by Stephanie Romero

In Italian there is a saying that is hard to translate into English, “anche l'occhio vuole la sua parte.” Literally it translates to, “The eye also wants its part.” It means that we love or crave visual beauty and aesthetics. In the course of writing my dissertation, I heard an Italian colleague suggest, “anche il cuore vuole la sua parte”: that the heart also wants its part. This rang true for me. In fact, I had been searching for my heart’s longing in my work as an educator and scholar. This was a search to incorporate the heart of my long-time personal practice of meditation into my professional spheres. My quest led me to radically shift my path. Initially, this played out most tangibly in my dissertation but later turned into a career shift.  

In pursuit of this integration, I decided to write a self-reflective dissertation on the process of bringing mindfulness into my classroom at South Fayette Middle School. Unexpectedly, through this process of researching and writing my dissertation, "The Awakened Heart of the Mindful Teacher: A Contemplative Exploration," I became more aware of the pain all around me in educational settings.

Teachers and administrators are often at the limits of their capacities and experience high degrees of stress. Many students bring emotional baggage to school with them, and the nature of high stakes testing and pressures to do well also create an air of tension in the schools. My awareness of the suffering around me in my school was heightened through this process.  

This is natural when we try to bring our mindfulness practice to our work because, as activist and social critic Sulak Sivaraska noted, “meditation is to know what is going on—in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in the world.” Instead of running away, my practices allowed me to stay present to the pain and suffering around me—there was no more avoiding reality. My mindfulness practices helped me to face the suffering around me and this gave birth to a desire to take action to alleviate the pain I saw.    

In fact, this is the very process of personal transformation and how the inner work of mindfulness practices and mediation can lead us to take action. Put another way, according to author Thich Nhat Hanh, “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?” As a classroom teacher in an institution that did not allow much space for the work of the heart that I felt called to do, I made the decision to leave and pursue a path that could work more directly to alleviate suffering through mindfulness practices. I wanted to be able to provide mindfulness and meditation instruction to youth and the adults that care for them.

With the support of a group of colleagues and friends, I founded Awaken Pittsburgh, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to promote personal and community well-being through mindfulness programs and compassionate actions.  

To support this mission, Awaken Pittsburgh has developed a curriculum series titled “Mindful Connections.” Each of these curricula have been designed and written from a place of personal practice.  Mindful Connections are mindfulness-based social and emotional curricula for youth, educators, helping professionals, and workplaces.

In addition, one of Awaken Pittsburgh’s program managers, Danae Clark, has developed a Mindful Connections for Addiction Recovery. Clark and another program manager, Carrie McCann, have also co-authored Mindful Connections for Conflict Resolution and Communication curricula.

These curricula are based on research, which has demonstrated that mindfulness practices can reduce stress and cravings as well as increase our sense of well-being and health. Mindfulness practices have also been shown to help to build social and emotional skills in adults and children, which are essential for emotional intelligence. Most importantly, mindfulness is also a way to be more fully present in our interactions with others and to our own life.

It is our hope that Awaken Pittsburgh can become a leader in transforming the Pittsburgh region through mindfulness programming. This new venture is allowing me to follow the path of my heart in educating the hearts of others.  

Stephanie Romero is an EdD alumna, executive director of the nonprofit Awaken Pittsburgh, and works at the University of Pittsburgh’s Collaborative for Evaluation and Assessment Capacity (CEAC). She previously taught for 20 years at various levels: from elementary, middle school, high school to college.