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DACAmented Teachers: Educating and Enriching Their Communities

Last month, the White House honored nine educators who received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as “Champions of Change.” These inspiring young men and women have tackled the challenging – yet crucial – task of becoming educators in their communities to empower the next generation of leaders. On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced the Department of Homeland Security’s DACA policy, which allows certain undocumented individuals who came to the United States as children and meet strict guidelines to seek temporary relief from removal, and gives them the opportunity to apply for work authorization. Since the 2012 announcement, more than 660,000 people have benefitted from DACA, and many DACA recipients have chosen to take on work in critical fields of service to the nation. This event honored nine young leaders in the field of education that are also DACA recipients, who have been strong role models for students and families, as well as change agents within their communities.

These Champions shared their personal reflections with us:

Jaime Ballesteros

Growing up, I never identified myself to others as an undocumented immigrant, because I knew that “undocumented” carried an undeniable stigma in its label. For instance, when describing the immigrants who participated in the 2006 immigration reform marches, my 8th grade teacher told my class about how undocumented immigrants were ruining our country’s economy. It was then that I started feeling the fears, shame, limits, and prejudices that came with being undocumented.  So, I learned to keep quiet.

I kept quiet as my friends got their driver’s licenses and first jobs. I kept quiet as I wondered whether my college degree will be put to use after graduation.  However, this changed when President Obama announced the implementation of DACA in 2012, my junior year of college.  DACA allowed me to obtain a work permit, find jobs to support myself through college, and travel around the country without fear of deportation.  More importantly, it allowed me to step out of the shadows and regain my voice and agency.

I joined Teach For America as a Corps Member upon graduating college, because I wanted to amplify the voices of students and families who shared both my story and values.  I wanted to ensure that there would be even just one less child who felt isolated and helpless because of his or her immigration status.  So, I found the courage to share my story with my students on my first day of teaching as a DACAmented teacher.  I no longer felt afraid, limited, or ashamed because my story – and the story of many other undocumented immigrants – exemplifies perseverance, hard work, and strength, values that I hope to instill in my students.

Jaime Ballesteros is a chemistry teacher at Ánimo College Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in Los Angeles.  He is a 2014 Teach For America Corps Member.

Maria Dominguez

My name is Maria E. Dominguez and I am a Bilingual First Grade Teacher in Austin, Texas. I was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and at the age of eight, my father passed away. My mother was left alone to raise four children when she decided to migrate to the United States.

Uncertain about my future, four months before I graduated high school, I found out about House Bill 1403 that allowed undocumented students in Texas to pay in-state tuition if they earned a place at Texas’ public universities. I earned my Bachelor’s in 2007 and in May 2012, I receive a Master’s degree in Bilingual Education from Texas State University.

After receiving DACA, I began working at Rodriguez Elementary School. I then became a member of Education Austin and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Education Austin and the AFT have given me the opportunity to work with the immigrant community—in particular, undocumented youth. I’ve volunteered at the citizenship drives offered by Education Austin and at DACA forums and clinics held in partnership with University Leadership Initiative in Austin, Texas. I’ve helped eligible lawful permanent residents fill out their citizenship applications and DREAMers fill out their DACA applications as part of my commitment to Education Austin and AFT. I’ve also worked with community leaders to bring essential information to the parents at my school for the first time. As a DACAmented teacher it has been truly rewarding to share my story with different audiences and create a sense of belonging within a community.

Maria E. Dominguez is a bilingual first great teacher in Austin, Texas.

Dinorah Flores Perez

Teaching and learning have always been important to me, especially when used as a means to empower low-income communities. As an immigrant from a multicultural family, I was taught to value education and unity. These values are at the core of the work I have done to pursue social justice and help create sustainable communities. My work has included providing leadership classes to women within my community and teaching on a reservation.   Last year, I continued this work by joining the Teach For America Corps as a teacher in New Mexico.

As a Teach For America educator, I work to inspire my students to see themselves as agents of change, and to be proud of who they are.  In my classroom, I work to create a welcoming space where my students can discuss their cultural heritage, feel valued and set goals for the impact they can make within their own communities. My goal is for my students to see themselves as important problem solvers in this nation. Moreover, I want to ensure they can make creative pathways for others to follow.

Whether inside or outside of the classroom, I believe creativity can help us explore our connection to culture and build stronger communities. I have always been an artist, acting in plays, performing spoken word, writing poetry, and painting.  My inspiration comes from the places and people that surround me, and my own cultural background. I thank all the organizations in Seattle that have taught me well how to care about the world and the people in it.  It is an honor to serve the children at my school, and to continue to work creatively for solutions to problems affecting all of our communities. 

Dinorah Flores Perez an elementary school teacher at Navajo, New Mexico.

Yara Hildago

Like many DACA recipients, I am the first in my family to graduate from college, Loyola Marymount University (LMU). I was born in Nayarit, Mexico and brought to the United States right before my second birthday. Since then, I have resided in California and call San Jose my home. After graduating from LMU in 2012, I completed a year of service through Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I served and mentored elementary and middle school children. My work through JVC reaffirmed my career path in education. I have been able to fulfill my passion of mentoring and teaching unprivileged youth to rise above society’s expectations and become leaders of their own communities.

During the school year, I attend graduate school at Santa Clara University where I am enrolled in the Master of Arts in Teaching for Catholic Schools Teacher program. I also intern at Sacred Heart Nativity Schools as a Math and Spanish teacher serving low-income student population. My advocacy work through the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley provides me the opportunity to become civically engaged with issues affecting women in my community, such as wage theft. My dreams and aspirations have emerged from my parents’ laborious work and continuous support.  DACA has opened a whole new set of doors in pursuing my graduate studies and career as an educator and an activist. 

Yara Cipatlic Hidalgo is a Math and Spanish Teacher at Sacred Heart Nativity Schools.

Kasfia Islam

Growing up with education as the only means to pursue a better life, I became passionate about the importance of education.  As an undocumented youth, I faced my own challenges pursuing my educational goals. But because of DACA, I have been able to pursue this passion personally and professionally. It has led me to work towards closing the education gap in the greater Houston area as a Pre-Kindergarten teacher at Shadow Oaks Elementary in Spring Branch Independent School District (ISD), a district northwest of Houston. The district's lead initiative is to promote a program called T-2-4, to double the number of students in the district who obtain a technical certificate, military training, two-year degree, or four-year degree after completion of high school.

I work to provide my students with a quality early childhood education that will serve as a critical foundation as they move forward in their academic career.  My students have achieved high levels of success in the classroom and will leave with the tools and skills they need to start what I hope to be a lifetime of learning – knowing all of their letters, letter sounds, and sentence structures, as well as the fundamentals of reading. I strongly believe early childhood education is not just a great building block, but also a necessity for many low-income students to get a head start in life. I strongly believe that all students, no matter their zip code, deserve equal opportunities as they journey to become the next generation of leaders. 

Kasfia Islam is a 2014 Early Childhood Education corps member for Teach for America.

Luis E. Juarez-Trevino

I am Mr. Juarez -- a 5th grade bilingual teacher at Lipscomb Elementary School in Dallas ISD – Go Lions! I’ll be starting my second year teaching at this great school and I am more excited than ever.

At Lipscomb, I play various roles. Aside from being a teacher and tutor, I help coach the soccer team; I believe extracurricular activities are the best motivators for academic performance. Additionally, this year my school is starting the candidacy phase of the International Baccalaureate program and I’m part of the team in charge of developing the curriculum that we’ll implement in the upcoming years.

My students and their families know that I am DACAmented; they know that we share very similar backgrounds and that creates very strong bonds that ultimately benefit the students. Very often, these parents invite me into their homes, where I get to know the family and the student on a very personal level. One of the most important things I do is getting to know my students outside of school. I shop where they shop, I go to places where their parents work and I run around their neighborhood. This is how they know I don’t just live in the classroom but understand where they come from and their daily lives.

Luis E. Juarez-Trevino is a fifth grade Bilingual Teacher at William Lipscomb.

David Liendo Uriona

As I was growing up, my mother always told me to work hard at everything I did. She often shared stories of her childhood in Bolivia and the lack of opportunities she had, and said she wanted better for my siblings and me. As a young person, I came to the United States because I knew that this country was where I could reach my goals and turn my dreams into reality. My life in the United States has not been easy. In fact, I discovered quickly that it was very difficult to be here without my family, navigating a new country, culture, and language on my own. I was faced with the challenge of supporting myself financially while learning, essentially, how to be a student all over again in a new school, with new teachers, and speaking a new language. At the end of my junior year in high school, when I was feeling dejected, a teacher recognized my intense desire to achieve, but also recognized my struggles, and became my mentor. For the first time, I revealed my situation of being undocumented and she told me that I could succeed despite not having documents. With her support I persevered and eventually received a scholarship to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at Cornell University, her alma mater. I have been blessed and fortunate to have had such a wonderful teacher whom I admire very much.

After struggling and learning the importance of education, after receiving DACA in 2013 I felt empowered to join Teach For America so that I could make a difference in students’ lives. For the past year, I have been teaching English as a Second Language, Introductory Spanish, and AP Spanish courses at High Tech Early College in Denver, Colorado, where I also established the school’s first National Honor Society and Spanish National Honors Society. I found that the best way to connect with my students was by sharing my personal story with them and showing them that we all face different obstacles, but we have the ability to overcome them. My motivation to get up every morning is my students. I do it for them because I want them to have an opportunity to see their bright future. I have told them that I care about them—more than they realize. Beyond their grades, I also care about their personal lives and well-being. Sometimes, learning can be so difficult if we cannot overcome the problems that we face outside of school. Each day I think about the difficulties in my students’ lives.

I think about Paul* who faced his dad’s deportation and had to work in construction to help his mom with the rent.

I think about Sam who has been growing up in an abusive home.

I think about Stephanie who did not have a house to live in and who was living in a motel and still attending school.

As an educator, I have learned different ways to support my students and no matter what they face, I encourage them to keep working hard and tell them that I will be there for them. I tell my students that I am here by choice and that I chose to become a teacher because I want to work with young people and make a difference, like a teacher did in my life. I am teaching because I truly believe that everyone’s dreams should come true. Like Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

*Names have been changed.

David Liendo Uriona, a corp member of Teach for America (TFA) 2014, teaches at High Tech Early College in Denver, Colorado

Marisa Molina

La educación es la más grande herencia y riqueza que un padre le puede dar a sus hijos.

Education is the greatest inheritance and wealth a parent can give their child.

My parents said this to my siblings and me when we were growing up. It always reminded me of the value and power of education. My hardest battles in life have been fought in the pursuit of education, especially as a first generation immigrant and undocumented student. When I graduated from Fort Lewis College in the fall of 2014, I felt that I had a responsibility to pay it forward, which is why I joined the Teach For America Colorado corps.

At the Denver School of Science and Technology: GVR High School, I teach Spanish for Native speakers. As the only Latina teacher in a school where 50 percent of the student body is Latino, I have worked tirelessly to create a space for my students to celebrate who they are and where they come from. This past year I saw my students explore their native language and culture, and engage in thoughtful discussions about issues their community is facing, such as poverty, workers’ rights, immigration, education and discrimination.

I have been amazed at the trust my students have placed in me as they share countless personal stories about their own struggles and their families’ struggles as immigrants and Latinos. As a DACAmented teacher, I have also come to realize the power that sharing my personal story can have on my students and my community. It has helped my students own their own stories and be proud of who they are.

Marissa Molina is a Spanish teacher at the Denver School of Science and Technology: GVR High School and a Public Policy Fellow at The Women’s Foundation of Colorado.

Rosario Quiroz Villarreal

As an educator, I’ve embraced the idea that modeling effectively helps students grasp new concepts and develop their capabilities, while also setting high expectations. Growing up, I was surrounded by exemplary people who constantly modeled how to face a challenge head on.

My mother represents the relentless spirit of my supportive role models. She raised my two younger brothers and me as a single parent, thousands of miles away from her family in Mexico. Instead of her personal challenges slowing her down, they motivated her efforts to create positive change. I watched her dedication to providing for us as she developed a community with strong Latino voices in which the three of us could thrive. She helped families learn how to advocate for themselves and gain access to necessary resources. From her, I learned about the strength of community, the need for vision, and the power of a persevering spirit.

I have been incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by people with my mother’s spirit, who believe in me. They have shown it by creating opportunities and advocating for me and others like me. They have been my champions, finding creative solutions around obstacles that at times seemed insurmountable as an undocumented student. Because of them, I had the courage to apply for DACA and have had great opportunities as a result. I have studied at Columbia University and worked with amazing non-profits nationwide, including the Boys and Girls Club, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, Momentum Alliance, and now Teach For America.  I believe it is my responsibility to continue in the footsteps of those that encouraged me, believed in me, and advocated for me. My work is devoted to their spirit of courage, compassion, vision, and dedication. My hope is to impact the lives of my students and others in my community in the same ways that my champions have impacted my life.

Rosario Quiroz Villarreal is a fourth grade bilingual teacher and 2014 Teach for America Corp Member in McAllen, TX.