Psychology in Educational Media (feat. Mariana Díaz-Wionczek)
Alumni Aloud Episode 41
Mariana Díaz-Wionczek earned her PhD from the psychology program at the Graduate Center. She is Principal at MDW Consulting & Research, a consulting firm for children’s educational media and technology.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Mariana tells us about her entrance into the field of children’s “edutainment.” She talks to us about her career path, being open to unexpected opportunities, her feelings about imposter syndrome, and the importance of paying it forward.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Kelly Cotton. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
This podcast episode was produced by a Graduate Center student who participated in an Alumni Aloud fellowship offered through the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development. This programming was sponsored by the CUNY Central Office Career Success – Workforce Development Initiative.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE–OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
KELLY COTTON, HOST: Hi everyone I’m Kelly Cotton and a PhD student in the Cognitive and Comparative Psychology program at the CUNY Graduate Center. In this episode I sit down with Dr. Mariana Díaz-Wionczek. Mariana earned her PhD in the Psychology program at The Graduate Center. When we spoke, Mariana had recently started her own consulting company in the field of children’s “edu-tainment.” In this episode Mariana tells us about her unusual career path and the importance of being open to unexpected opportunities, how she feels about imposter syndrome as well as the importance of paying her good luck forward. Mariana lives in New York and we met up at The Graduate Center. Thank you so much for meeting with me today! Do you first want to say your name and kind of what you do?
MARIANA DÍAZ-WIONCZEK, GUEST: Sure my name it was Mariana Díaz-Wionczek. I graduated, as I was telling you, it’s 2002 from the Environmental Psychology program and I’ve been working in children’s educational media not for about 15-17 years so I guess we’ll talk about that.
COTTON: Great! And so how did you get there?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: Yeah as a graduate student I was working as a freelance researcher for a company that does market research that specializes in children. So I did some projects with this company and I was well acquainted with the kind of work that happens at some of the networks that produce children’s content like Nickelodeon in this case. So then I finished my doctorate in 2002, and then I sort of found a job at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. And an opportunity opened up at Nickelodeon that was Dora the Explorer, which was a very famous musical production, for several years. And they had an opening in the research department so I applied for that and I also happen to be Mexican, Mexican-American, Latina. So then I got the job and then I sort of stayed in that industry since then. So that was sort of the… when I landed at Nickelodeon that sort of changed my professional [trajectory].
COTTON: Right so you never like planned to go into academia?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: No when my friend told me about this job I was like well I’m not a developmental psychologist. I did have a lot of developmental background just coming from undergrad because I took a lot of developmental courses in undergrad. So I was sort of in the world of developmental psych from when I was in the doctorate but I did not specialize in developmental psych. I was more specialized and the way that I sort of spin it today is cognitive psychology. I did environmental psych but I focused a lot on commission of space, so the mental processes and things like that. So I can always talk to that if I’m asked the question. So yeah I stayed there and I got lucky in that track and then I sort of got promoted and I was sort of head of the research education departments for all those years and then I started interfacing with a lot of other groups that were, as I was just saying, not only the content for the actual TV show but also the branding, consumer products and consumer insights. Working with other people that do other kinds of research. Because the world of educational children’s media is very small. Most of the people are in New York, so it’s just a small group of people and we all sort of know each other.
So then I also met the people from Sesame Street and I started collaborating with them and I did projects with them. They needed a person to oversee the implementation of educational content in the shoots in Mexico City. Because I grew up in Mexico City, I was sort of a natural person to go do that and I did that with them. And there’s a whole group that’s called the Joan Ganz Cooney Center because Sesame Street is so important they have a policy group and research group that’s very formal, much more academic or at least more overlap with academic work in policy development. And they started an initiative on Latino kids and families at school learning together, Aprendiendo Juntos. And they invited me as an industry person, so it was heavily academic and I was considered more like an industry person. So what I’m trying to get to is that I developed a network that I continue to develop. So anyway, Dora the Explorer ended the production and I was left without a job.
And that leads to sort of my present time because at that time it was a bad time for educational media because it’s sort of a trend that for little kids it becomes more educational and then less educational and then more educational and then less. At that time it was on the “less” swing so nobody cared even though there was a lot of new media content being produced in short format and digital content and all that stuff, there was not a huge interest in educational. So I had a tough 2 years after Dora the Explorer not knowing exactly what to do or how to find a job and what ended up happening is that I sort of gathered all my thoughts and all my no-how’s and all my experience and all that and I started a company with my expertise. So I had to figure out a story, sort of what’s the story behind my offering and what was unique about my offering. Because there’s a handful of all women that do that kind of work that I do in terms of educational research for media, for kid’s media right. But then I had to think about sort of how to position myself as different from these offerings and it was very obvious which is a whole Latino, multicultural and transcultural perspective on things and I also by then, this is 2 years ago, so I already knew that I preferred to have a point of view over just conducting research and being a research vendor.
So I was very well equipped to just be a research vendor. And so I could do that but I also had a strong point of view and my contacts and friends were like that’s what’s valuable, your trajectory, people want to hear that. So I was positioning myself as both a sort of consultant and advisor and as a research provider, which is not my preference. But so then what perspective would I bring to projects is pretty much what I’m saying. I have a lot of like a decade of experience in children’s media education specifically and in bringing in a sort of cultural layer or flavor. And the way that that’s done has evolved through the years. And I now I feel I’m in this very privileged position to be figuring out how to multicultural or transcultural content in a way that feels right in kid’s products. And it’s a very happy place to be.
COTTON: Can you kind of just walk us through what you do on like a typical day?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: Well clients come to me. Nickelodeon is one of my clients, other people come to me to see, “how do we do bilingual content, how do we address Latino audiences. They have questions about like LatinX and things like that. So I’ve been sort of going that route and the route of inclusion, diversity in other ways too so not only race and ethnicity but also… My newest thing is with disability because I was invited to something with a group that does a lot of disability consulting. That’s called bridge multimedia. And I was invited to talk about like trajectory and what they do is that they do content hon ow to portray all sorts of different abilities and disabilities in children’s content. So that’s sort of my new thing like I’m looking a lot at different abilities, disabilities diversity in kid’s media.
COTTON: So maybe this is jumping ahead a bit in the interview but I think it’s sort of a natural [transition]. So where do you think the future of your field and everything is going?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: Well the future is, happy to report…maybe I’m being an optimist but I’m part of forming the future. So where is the future? I feel I go back to like sort of the typical you know market data. So there’s an obsession right now with the Latino/Hispanic market segment. I hate talking about market but like people are very interested in the Latino and Hispanic market because there is a big growth and other things, but most importantly because they might be the majority by 2050 right. So everybody wants to address these populations and do it supposedly right and be culturally sensitive and they don’t know how to do it.
So they seek “professional opinion” on the matter and that is what I’m talking about going back to the PhD, that is why it comes handy. Because people do trust having that credibility because the general market does put a value on those 3 letters. And so the future is.. I’m like tiptoeing into the future. Okay so I had started my company I got this big project with Nickelodeon and now that it’s wrapping up and I have to work with other clients in the future. It’s exactly what I’m doing how do you get more work that you like and how you know in the best-case scenario, which is not my case yet, select which projects you want to work on and not have to work on all the projects to chase a carrot. So there’s a sort of very natural flow of projects that come to me that are only interesting to me because they are people that are developing content for kids, they want to do like good quality content. So I end up working on projects that really need me meaning I can add value and that’s what I want. So I work with right now three very active clients and I work with them from home.
COTTON: Is it doing research yourself or it’s just collecting research? What exactly are you doing?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: I give them a point of view. I know it’s like weird, I just want to talk about what I know and be paid money but that’s pretty much it. I have developed over the years a knowledge of this industry of educational children’s media and how sort of there’s this overlap between what’s educational content which is a kind of content that you would see in the classroom and what’s considered entertainment. And it actually has a name that’s called “edu-tainment.” So I’m an expert in that little convergence and people want to know how to do that. There’s a bunch of people that are like that, some of them are PhD’s some of them are not. Some of them have backgrounds in education because as I said it’s a handful of all women that do this and they’re also research providers. I have declared that I’m an opinion person and not only a research person. Because I have the doctorate and because I grew up in Mexico and a Latino with an exotic accent, it cannot get much better than that. And also I am multicultural myself so that combination is sort of my elevator pitch like I am your audience and I also have a PhD in this and that so I can help you create content. But again when you’re advising certain people, they just come to you for your opinion on something. I know it’s weird but it happens, people pay me for that yeah.
COTTON: Do you have any kind of dream project that you would want to work?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: No I mean the projects I work on are all good and I’m a story person so I care more about projects that have good stories. So for instance I’m working with people that produce podcasts, they’re great. And so it’s all about stories because it’s audio content like just figuring out stories and then working with minds that are creative minds that can come up with amazing stories and amazing characters and a whole world of you know a whole freaking universe that they made up in their head. And then you come in and there’s an entry point for whatever it is that I have to offer. So what I have to offer is like well if you’re going to be addressing an 8-year-old don’t address that 8-year-old as a 4-year-old and don’t address the 8-year-old as a 12-year-old. And you can be inspirational, but be realistic in your approach to an 8-year-old. So I do bring a lot of developmental input, a human development input into things and then just figuring out the situations that these characters are placed in. They have to feel right and you know when creators are just… they need minds and it’s just nice when your voice is welcome into that sort of world and you have something to say and add value into a whole world that’s a made-up world.
There are shows that are my favorites, there is one called Hero Hotel where you take all these heroes and they go on vacation together to the hotel. They don’t want to be bothered and they just want to relax and it’s a whole world of these heroes that they created. And the author, the main writer happens to be Latino but there’s nothing about the show that’s Latino but you can see that there’s already a sensitivity to diversity and to the way that all these characters you know are involved and it’s just incredible. And then there’s another show called Opal Watson and that’s a girl who is a detective who is going blind because she has a retina pigmentosa I think it’s called, the problem that she has, and she’s losing her vision and she will lose our vision throughout the seasons of the show. So just figuring out how to do that right for a population, you know that this reflects an African-American girl who is also losing her eyesight and I’m trusted with you know with doing that well. And yeah I mean they are trusting me to get it right so of course I have to work with people that know about vision because I’m not an expert on that.
So I find the “real experts,” I don’t think of myself as a real expert, don’t tell anyone. But I think it’s the imposter syndrome right. But there’s other real experts and I find them and work with them and so I get their input and bring it in. So I do a lot of that too like I bring together other people that are experts. So I bring them together and together we give opinions on these imaginary fantastical worlds that these creators are making. Oh and then to supplement it very nicely I used to be invited to speak or teach media are whatever, different kinds of things. And then my friends were like, “well why don’t you just put together all of those lectures and pitch it at NYU. So I remember I just like had some thoughts and I went to talk to a chair and I was like, “well you know I have this course and there’s a lot for graduate psych students and there’s a lot of opportunity in this industry and it’s developing. And NYU cares a lot about job placements and stuff so they loved it and they’re like, “sure send us the info.”
So then I created my course and I teach it at NYU. And then Fordham, it was a similar story. I was invited to talk at the graduate school of education there and then they invited me as a regular adjunct. I was just teaching a course that was assigned to me on bilingual education. But it’s a happy coincidence because now whatever I taught at Fordham because they brought me in as an adjunct, this comes in very handy because I taught educators about bilingual education. So that’s sort of the basis of my thinking for my content which I do a lot of. So all these experiences have come together.
Back to the question, I have absolutely no idea. People in my program here in environmental psych know that I had no idea what I wanted to do when I came to environmental psych. I used to be on the admissions committee and was like, I like the students, I have a lot of interns, and I had a lot of young students in my life. And some of them know exactly what they want, great, congratulations, awesome. I just don’t know how at your young age you can know so much about what you want. I never knew, I still don’t know. I think I know a little bit better. And then there’s the ones that know nothing like myself and I don’t discredit them because I was that. I did undergraduate in Mexico so I went to the school to psychology but I didn’t know that I wanted that. And then I finished psychology and I didn’t really know what I wanted. That’s why I found environmental psychology because I didn’t want to do clinical work. I wanted to do something to do with more social science and that’s how I found environmental psychology. But I’m more of a field person rather than a path person so like fields are more open and you tend not to get out of track because it’s just a field.
COTTON: So do you think specific things that you did or learned during your PhD helped?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: Yes definitely and today what I think I value the most is the rigor of the thinking, of the thinking process and a lot of sort of the general but still rigorous research components of the methodologies and things like that. And so even though you don’t necessarily apply the same level of rigor in content research, which is what I do, there’s still a way of thinking and perceiving that comes from formal training in research. I was always, from when I was a student here, a very qualitative heavy person. My way of thinking is much more qualitative and in depth. Even with statistics and the more quantitative approaches, there’s a way of thinking about how to approach problems that makes you more creative when sort of thinking of methodologies and ways to study things or even ways to ask questions. And I think that comes from that formal training. I thought about this before because as I was saying before, in my industry there are these people that are doing sort of what I do and I feel there’s a difference between the doctors and the non-doctors. And I think it comes down to that sort of formality and a way of being open to different ways of thinking about problems and approaching the problem and creating a way to answer the question. Those kinds of things I think are the most valuable to me.
COTTON: And do you think there’s anything special I guess about The Graduate Center or CUNY in general that you particularly found exciting?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: I did undergrad in a public university in Mexico which was different from the path; I went to a private high school so most of the people at that time were going to private universities and I went to a public university. And coming here to like a city school, it’s something that I value a lot. There’s something maybe like very down to earth about the people that choose to come here. Like I feel 100% that I’m from here, like I’m a CUNY person, I advocated for CUNY when I was taking interns as I was saying. We were taking all the same exact interns from U Penn, from NYU, from Tufts, they were all the same intern year after year. And I said, “where are the CUNY students?” I literally called the people from the Psychology Department at Hunter so I ended up getting interest from Hunter all the time. Like Tufts, they’re still going to get an internship, let them get another internship. And the interns that I got from CUNY… one of them, she was from Hunter and she was from my neighborhood in Astoria. And she was going to be a nurse and she had no interest in media but like the internship changed her and she’s now at Univision and she’s been in this industry for a lot of years. And the other one was also from Hunter, Kelly, now she’s a professor, she just finished her doctorate here. CUNY all the way!
COTTON: So you mentioned earlier how a friend told you about the first job. So my question is in terms of networking and things like that, how do you approach it, do you do it?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: I’m not the biggest networker and I think it’s part of my style. Some people are great at it and I’m not and people that know me know that I’m not. And in networking you just have to be like smiley and chatty and you have to be good with names and faces which I’m not always, especially names. So I’m not a very talented networker to tell you the truth. I’m more of an introvert also so it’s not my style. I think there has to be a combination, there has to be 2 things. You have to be lucky and you have to take the opportunity. I used to always say, “I was so lucky, I’m so lucky” and people were like no, it’s not just that you’re lucky. I had and now I’m finally getting over it, the whole imposter syndrome. I was imposter syndrome, if you looked in the dictionary for imposter syndrome I was pictured. And now I’m like yeah I guess I do have a perspective.
COTTON: How did you get over that?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: I think doing things that sort of…like once I got hard evidence like once I got the course at NYU and certain things that kind of like speak I wouldn’t say universally but they speak a little bit more globally of someone’s capabilities. I still do feel that way like I feel I can’t write now I know that I can. I used to always think I can’t write, I can’t write and then I see how people write and I’m like oh no I can write.
COTTON: So did you always want to stay away from academia? Did you ever want to be a professor?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: No I always knew I was going to stay away from academia and it relates to the imposter syndrome. I never thought that I could write or teach anybody anything or do my own research. I think that was it, I never believed I could do it. I’m not a 5 year plan person, I think you really have to have a clear map as an academic and I never thought I had it.
COTTON: You ever wish that you had been down that path?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: Just because after going through 2 years of difficulty finding jobs and even now like not having my own medical insurance and all that stuff. Yeah I mean tenure now looks awesome, but at that time absolutely not like I was just not interested. And now I see tenure as a dream like you never have to worry again. But as I told you I wasn’t a 5-year planner or 10- or 15-year planner so I never ever thought that I would be 50 years old one day and that’s around the corner. And I never thought of that. Not that I thought it wouldn’t happen, I just didn’t anticipate it happening. So yes 100%. Some people are very passionate about their work, great for them and then therefore they want to just keep doing it forever. It wasn’t my case.
COTTON: Are there any unique problems or things that you particularly like about owning your own company?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: It’s more work than money. I’m not a business person, I just don’t have a business mentality and people always said to me for like I would say 10 years or more, like why don’t you start your own company. I’m not a business person and I didn’t know how to start a company without being a business person and then I just had to do it and I started my company. I didn’t even think of starting a company, I just created a website with my offerings and then I had to create an LLC. And my accounting is pathetic because I am very bad with accounting and I have never taken an accounting course of any sort. So I just have developed my own very primitive system of keeping track of what I’ve invoiced and what I’ve been paid. That’s a challenge and I never thought you know even now like thinking when did I start a business? I think I started it when the website was ready but I’ve been doing this for a little longer than that you know.
COTTON: And how did you find your first client? How did you really get it going?
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: All this is very new so I remember really well how it all happened. I was miserable at Mount Sinai. I had always been in you know a very happy professional environment and then I wasn’t finding a job and then also some personal stuff happening in my life. So I needed a job desperately so then I ended up landing the job at Mount Sinai. I cried everyday like it was just so bad. That experience I think pushed me to do the other thing because I said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I said instead I’m going to try consulting. There were no jobs and I kept hearing in the interviews, “you’re overqualified in ABC but you don’t have enough experience in XYZ.” Well if you’re overqualified in certain things and you don’t have experience in certain things then you have to sell the ones that you’re overqualified for and that’s called a consultant.
What really nailed it for me was just building the website because when I built the website I had to build a story. What is it that I’m offering, how do I want to say it? And then I was lucky too. Nickelodeon contacted me for something like very minor about this thing that they were doing in Spain. So I came in to talk and she was going to do an assessment of some SpongeBob SquarePants thing. And she’s like, “you want to come?” And I’m like, “sure.” So I went with them and I ended up doing a whole report based on that. And she said, “are you available to come on Thursday” and I’m like, sure. Let me check my calendar *laughs*. Oh my god. So it sort of happened like that. I put the website up and I started doing some phone calls and talking to people. My friend, who’s a producer of the new show that I’m working on right now, she hired me full time. LinkedIn has been a huge thing. One of my big clients right now it’s called Golden Noodle. They do short format content and they have YouTube channels for movement and mindfulness. And they’re starting Latino initiative and I had met these woman…not met, I had connected with her on LinkedIn maybe 4 years ago and said we should meet for coffee but we never met.
And then I don’t know how, she was looking for something on LinkedIn and she found me. Another one of my 3-week clients I was telling you about. So one is that. Again I got lucky… one of the young people I had in my team moved to Panoply and they started to do their research project and I submitted a proposal for research with the facility and focus groups and all the regular market research stuff. And then they’re like, “oh we’re not going to do that because we’re splitting from Panoply and we’re going to become our own thing.” Six months later they called me. They’re like, “oh you have this and that” and then instead of doing research I was one of the development consultants. So it was ten times better because I didn’t want to do research, I wanted to do point of view. And now I do the Hero Hotel show with them and a bunch of other shows. So things happen, but you have to seek the opportunity and grab it but seek, seek, seek.
COTTON: Is there anything else, any other advice if somebody wants to go into media, wants to go in this field? So like one bit of advice that you would give them.
DÍAZ-WIONCZEK: I think in general, because my style is to be very open to different things rather than chasing after just one carrot. All the veggies are good. *laughs* So just sort of be open to not only in in media. First of all consider the media industry because there’s a lot going on and it’s not going anywhere and there are the content developers. Some of them are going to continue producing junk and some of them want to produce quality stuff and they need help. So there’s definitely opportunity in the media industry for all sorts of good thinkers. When you’re blessed to have these opportunities and everything, you have to pay it forward, 100%.
And you have to be generous and you have to be attentive to people. In my industry it’s sort of… there’s a lot of sheek you know, there’s a lot of fabulous and there’s a lot of LA sort of grandiose personalities and things like that. And I think if you’re just a little bit more down to earth and appreciative and just generous with your time, with your attention and you do things like this for instance. It will come back but even if it doesn’t come back, it just goes forward and paying it forward…I had it in sort of part of my mission is to do that. Like I feel like if I pay it forward with 100 people, like when people that you help do great, there’s just more greatness. So definitely pay it forward if you feel that it has gone well for you, like help other people get that too because it’s just more for everybody.
KELLY COTTON, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Mariana for coming on the show to share her experiences as a researcher and consultant in the children’s media industry. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter and career planning website at cuny.is/careerplan for more updates from our office or to make appointments with our career counselors. Thanks for listening and see you next time!