Emily Key always wanted to be an astronaut and, in a way, the starts guided her into becoming a museum educator.

After enrolling in a physics class in high school, Emily learned that she did not really love its mathematical component. She is also not a fan of roller-coasters: “If I don’t like roller-coasters, I’m likely not going to like getting on a space shuttle that goes 17,000 miles an hour!”

This is why, inspired by her upbringing in three different countries and ten different states in the United States before the age of 19, Emily decided to instead become an “ambassador of humanity.” While completing her degree in International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington DC, Emily worked as an Explainer at the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum. This experience eventually led her to the Smithsonian Latino Center, where she currently serves as the Education Program Manager.

I had the opportunity to chat with Emily while spending this summer in Washington, DC. We talked about encouraging life-long learning in each member of our communities and the importance of seeking resources and mentorship to continue both, our individual and collective development. 

Verónica: Tell me about your work at the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Emily: In the official capacity, I direct education programs and publications for the kindergarten to undergraduate audience related to Smithsonian Latino collections but also to Latina and Latino experiences in the United States. The unofficial—and slightly more creative and fun—way to say it is that I create experiences that allow young people, families, teachers, and students to get to really know their own cultural identity and to connect that to the ability for them to build their own skills that can help them as they go forward into their professional and academic lives or just their own day-to-day enrichment as a person—a human being. I get paid to do something so awesome: Exploring our heritage and our contributions to the world in everything from music and art to science and science research…I think that our message is to be a bridge between the Smithsonian and the Latino community and encourage not just education in its traditional sense but to building a commitment to life-long learning, to enrichment, to contribute to the community, and to the generative process of either creating art or developing research.

Verónica: At LACE and here at the Smithsonian Latino Center, we have an interest in Latina/Latino/Latinx communities. What advice do you have for members of our communities who want to become educators in this country?

Emily: There are resources out there and I had no idea about them. Interestingly enough, I run a youth development program and I’m always telling them, “There’s tons of resources, go look for them!” I connect them to scholarships, internships, fellowships, and mentorship opportunities. And when I look back, I did none of that. I literally took out loans to go to school and worked through school. I did not think about the fact that there are resources for the Latino community here and that we should take advantage of them. If you want to do something, there is likely a resource, an organization, a person out there that will help you. A lot of it starts with knowing that there are resources out there, knowing that there are organizations there to foster not just mentorship and development of your own professional goals but also to serve as personal mentors. How do you navigate being bicultural and sometimes bilingual in a society that is more and more divided as we go through the years? How do you successfully navigate that?

Sometimes teachers have to create their own professional development, they have to figure out their own way to navigate the system on their own… And I think that folks should know there are systems, there are organizations, there are people out there championing the Latino community and the professional Latino community. And education is a profession. It is not necessarily the most rewarded profession but it is definitely the most important profession because the future relies on our educators. Our educators craft and create and mold the future minds of America. We need to start getting the word out about these resources and opportunities because that not only betters our community, but it betters our future.

Verónica: That’s awesome. Now let’s do a “Completa la frase…” I’ll start it and you finish it.

Emily: Okay!

When I was a kid, I wanted to be… An astronaut.

The most exciting part of being an educator is… Getting to see the spark in young people’s eyes or adults or families or teachers or the parents—especially the parents—when they learn something new. That lightbulb moment is probably the greatest reward you can have as an educator.

My biggest challenge as an educator is… Getting people to understand that education is not touchy feeling, that it is impactful, that it is deep, and that it is connected to the idea of progress. That it isn’t just a moment of, “Let me draw myself on a picture frame and call it an activity,” but that it’s a moment of self-reflection and of building of somebody’s identity. Somebody that in the future, might become the president of the United States.

A word that inspires me is… Familia. And I say that in both the traditional family sense, but also this familia, this network of familia that we are creating here at the Center with our young people, with the Young Ambassadors program and the Latino Museum Studies Program. That concept of building a family in a non-traditional sense and building that sense of community and belonging.

If I could get dinner with… Personally, The Beatles. Professionally: Maya Angelou. I would ask them… To the Beatles: Can I be one of you guys? [Laughs.] How do you capture that essence of energy? To Maya: How do you remain so positive about the world and about human beings? How do you remain graceful under pressure?

The Smithsonian Latino Center provides value to the world because… We encourage you to explore the community as you explore yourself.

When I’m not working I like to… Read and listen to music. And if I could do it in my hamaca, I’d be even happier. And if I could do it by the beach, I’d be in heaven. Reading and listening to music in an hamaca on the beach is what I would consider my perfect weekend!

One book I recommend for educators is… Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. He was a unique individual in that he was diplomat, a cultural ambassador, an inventor, a publisher… He had all these different passions and areas of interest and he taught people how to do those things! He was the master inventor, but an inventor is really an educator. You’re tinkering, you’re playing with things, you’re coming up with new ways to think about things!

Verónica: Transport yourself to the future, what has the SLC educations programs accomplished?

Emily: I hope that what we aim to do of creating life-long learners actually comes to fruition. I hope that the students that I meet when they are 17 and they come to the Young Ambassadors Program—when I’m old and gray and retired by the beach with my hammock and my book—I hope that they are encouraging their kids, their kids’ friends, and their community to learn. I think that learning is what allows us to bridge our gaps and divides. I think that in all of today’s politically charged cultural confusion… I think that a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know and they are just listening to whoever will talk and be on the bully pulpit… I think that a lot of that tension can be healed by learning—By learning about each other from each other. Rather than just talking at each other, talking with each other.