Share / Discuss

A Lesson for Life

Swarthmore taught me what a true teacher is—so I became one

Growing up Latino and working class in Bethlehem, Pa., I wondered why life always seemed so hard and uncertain. At home, I watched my parents go off to backbreaking jobs; at school, I couldn’t escape bigotry and low expectations. I will never forget my high school physics teacher making derogatory remarks about Latino students in my presence, as if I were invisible or in agreement.

At Swarthmore I majored in sociology and anthropology to better understand these experiences. In Sarah Willie-LeBreton’s “Intro to Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” I realized, much to my chagrin, I had internalized some of my physics teacher’s intolerance: In an essay, for example, I referred to “Hispanic opportunists” who participated in citywide looting during the 1992 Los Angeles race riots. 

In the illuminating conversations with Professor Willie-LeBreton that followed, I unpacked many of the problematic ideas and perspectives I had absorbed over the years. I went on to study social movements with renowned peace activist George Lakey and theories of oppression and resistance with the fiercely inspiring Nina Johnson. Unlike the experience with my physics teacher, I felt valued and empowered in these professors’ classrooms. They and others gave me not only the tools but also the love and confidence I needed to become the person I am today. 

Outside the classroom, I involved myself in many activist campaigns and worked with youth of color in Chester, Pa., as a tutor, mentor, and Chester Community Fellow. Seeing these young people confront similar inequalities made it clear that I could make a real difference. After all, my thesis research revealed that youth, especially those underserved by society, are keen social critics who reap immeasurable benefits from having impactful, nonparental adults involved in their lives. 

This realization—affirmed by my own experience with mentors at Swarthmore—solidified my desire to become an educator and to work toward disrupting inequality through teaching and mentoring. That’s why I completed my master of arts in teaching at Brown University, where I learned to bridge progressive theory and practice.

Today, I teach at a Title I charter school in Rhode Island, serving mainly students of color. In my classroom, I challenge students to be critical thinkers while also affirming their cultural backgrounds. I want my students to see that their perspectives matter, even if they aren’t always represented or valued in the dominant discourse. As a teacher of color, I also share my experience and how it continues to influence me as I navigate different professional contexts. 

In keeping with my core values fortified at Swarthmore, I am constantly searching for ways to disrupt inequality in other facets of my students’ lives. Accordingly, I was thrilled to be chosen as a 2016 fellow for the Rhode Island chapter of the New Leaders Council (NLC), a national organization that “recruits, trains, and promotes the next generation of progressive leaders.” As a fellow, I will complete a rigorous five-month training program and capstone project. I hope to acquire new skills from NLC that will extend my influence on the state’s educational landscape. 

When working with youth, whether in or out of the classroom, one adage always holds true: They won’t care what you know until they know that you care. Knowing this, we should all bring warmth and empathy into every interaction with young people; as was the case with my professors and me, the result will be a mutual trust that helps to unlock their full potential.