Reaching Bilingual Teachers Earlier in the Pipeline: Proposed Priorities for the National Professional Development Program

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom.
Reaching Bilingual Teachers Earlier In The Pipeline:

Proposed Priorities For The National Professional Development Program

By: Montserrat Garibay, Assistant Deputy Secretary and Director, Office of English Language Acquisition

I clearly remember my first day of middle school as a newly arrived student from Mexico in Austin, Texas, I didn’t speak a word of English and was nervous to start a new life with my mother and sister.  My first class looked like the United Nations, students from all over the world speaking different languages, we were shy and scared.  It wasn’t until, our ESL teacher, Mrs. Hernandez welcomed us with a big smile that I knew t I was going to be fine. My feelings were confirmed when I heard her speak Spanish.

Within a few months, everyone in the class was learning. Mrs. Hernandez had high expectations for all the students; her classes were rigorous, she had us working in groups, collaborating, singing, and using different strategies. Her classroom was full of diverse books, multicultural pictures and a world map with our pictures and displaying our best work. She had also established a strong relationship with my mom and would communicate with her often to let her know how I was doing in school. She would share about different resources such as food banks and after school programs for tutoring.

Within a year, I was able to transition to regular English classes. Years later, I graduated from high school all because of Mrs. Hernandez’s strong foundation., she helped me believe in myself.  Mrs. Hernandez was my inspiration to become a bilingual teacher. I wanted to be just like her. Her presence inspired me to embrace multilingualism, become a critical thinker, and actively engage with families. That experience fueled my passion for education and led me to become a teacher.

Nearly a decade later, when I was a bilingual pre-k teacher at the same school district where I attended middle school and graduated from high school in Austin, Texas, I had the opportunity to pursue my master’s degree in Bilingual Education at the University of Texas at Austin through Proyecto Maestria, a National Professional Development (NPD) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

At the time, Proyecto Maestria may not have been called a “grow-your-own” effort, but it had the components of what we know today to be beneficial. This grant opened the door to expand my knowledge about the importance of quality bilingual education, the impact that it can have on promoting biliterate and bicultural students, and the benefit of continuing as a bilingual teacher in my home community. That NPD grant had a significant impact on my life because it provided me with the opportunity to continue my education with the goal of providing an exceptional education for my students. Getting to this point in my career though, wasn’t easy. I had to navigate working multiple jobs to pay for my tuition, being a first-generation college student, taking remedial math classes to be proficient in math. I can only imagine how many more doors it could open if it were available for aspiring educators who need help getting their foot in the door – who perhaps like me, want to serve kids like the ones we were, but don’t have all the resources to get started.

This is why the Department is proposing new priorities, requirements, and definitions in the NPD program that would grow our numbers of bilingual and multilingual educators to expand the availability of bilingual programs for all students and help ensure that English Learners have access to well-prepared educators,  and emphasize and elevate supports for students from low-income backgrounds. The Notice of Proposed Priorities (Federal Register :: Proposed Priorities, Requirements, and Definitions-National Professional Development Program invites public comment for 30 days.

Montserrat Garibay is the Assistant Deputy Secretary & Director for the Office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education. Previously, she served as the Senior Advisor for Labor Relations at the Office of Secretary for two years. Garibay was a bilingual pre-kindergarten teacher for eight years and a National Board-Certified Teacher in Austin, Texas. She served as Vice President for Certified Employees with Education Austin, a merged union local with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. She graduated from the University of Texas-Austin with a Master of Education. 

Digital Equity Champions for All Learners: Madison College High School Equivalency Program Builds Digital Skills among Migrant and Seasonal Farm Workers

This is crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology.

In Wisconsin, Madison College’s High School Equivalency Program (HEP) supports migrant and seasonal farm workers and their families earning their Certificate of General Educational Development (GED) or High School Equivalency Diploma (HSED). Learners in this program are mostly mobile, and they come from across the entire state, often rural and remote areas. Therefore, even prior to COVID-19, program director Alex Fernández needed ways to enable learner access to the program from remote locations. Then, the onset of the pandemic accelerated the need for digital access and skills. 

To meet learners’ device access needs, Madison College created the Technology Access Program to loan laptops and hotspots to registered students, including HEP participants, free of charge. The HEP program also informed learners about federal programs such as the Affordable Connectivity Program. Learners were encouraged to use their cell phones to access content in areas with unreliable internet service, and instructors provided technical support and flexibility with submitting assignments. 

When the GED exam transitioned online, students needed to learn both exam content and digital skills to navigate the exam platform. Elizabeth Fontán, an HEP instructor at Madison College, found that learners’ hesitancy to use technology and lack of support in home languages served as significant barriers to acquiring digital literacy skills. “My students were overwhelmed by computers,” Fontán explained. She began meeting her learners’ needs by leveraging materials translated into Spanish. Fontán also integrated digital skill-building opportunities into instructional content and sought to destigmatize learners’ lack of knowledge on how to use technology. “We take for granted the skills of opening a document, attaching files,” said Fontán. “These need to be built in[to the curriculum].” 

The program has observed the impact of device access, skill-building opportunities, technical support, and attention to factors that contribute to learner success like childcare and course/assignment flexibility. For example, prior to the pandemic, Madison College HEP began offering online opportunities for learners to build digital skills and work towards their HSED on the weekends to accommodate learners whose schedules had limited flexibility during the weekday.  Currently, recognizing that some learners live in migratory camps and share limited physical space with their families, the program is working to implement stipends for childcare, so learners can better participate in remote learning. 

With these supports, learners have been better able to persist in the program and often continue their educational journey past their HSED/GED, taking other classes offered at the college. Fontán shared the story of Ignacia, who had participated in the program for many years but hadn’t passed the GED tests. Although she was initially intimidated by the transition online, she used remote learning opportunities to her advantage, especially given her busy schedule as a certified nursing assistant. Leveraging the flexibility of online classes and competency-based – rather than exam-based – coursework, Ignacia recently graduated from Madison College HEP and plans to enroll in a nursing program soon. 

Learners are additionally provided with a personal device upon completion of the program, which enables them to continue leveraging technology to meet their and their families’ needs, such as assisting their children with schoolwork. Fernández says the program helps them “see they can do things they didn’t think they were capable of.” 

When asked for advice for states developing digital equity plans, Fernández stressed the importance of sharing program successes with leaders at the local and state level. “These programs might not be on their radar until it is highlighted. We need to advocate for these things because it takes money. We need to convince people to allocate funds for this.” For educators and educational leaders, Fontán encouraged the explicit inclusion of digital skill-building opportunities when developing curricula with digital elements.

Apprentice Trailblazers: Share your story, build the future

This is crossposted from the U.S. Department of Labor blog.

This year marks the 86th anniversary of the National Apprenticeship Act, which established the Registered Apprenticeship system as we know it today. As the apprenticeship system continues to evolve, expand and diversify, Registered Apprenticeship continues to serve as a gold standard of work-based learning.

In honor of Registered Apprenticeship’s transformative impact on the lives of millions of apprentices over the past 86 years, we’re launching the Apprentice Trailblazer Initiative. This new initiative will create a national network of apprentices and apprenticeship graduates from all walks of life and give them a platform to feature their stories, share their experiences on Registered Apprenticeship, and show how apprenticeships increase opportunities for all communities, particularly underserved populations.

The Apprentice Trailblazer Initiative is a part of our broader Youth Employment Works strategy, which supports policies, partnerships and strategies to provide equitable access for all young people to prepare for high-quality career paths through Registered Apprenticeship.

The first cohort of Apprentice Trailblazers will focus on youth ages 16-24. We’ve seen how Registered Apprenticeship provides young people the unique opportunity to gain critical skills and work experience in their early working years and access to a career pathway and free education, often including college credit and even a degree. Serving as an Apprentice Trailblazer will offer additional professional development opportunities for apprentices and graduates, as participants will have the chance to enhance their leadership and teamwork skills and engage in networking and mentorship.

As we turn towards the future of Registered Apprenticeship, we must ensure that all youth, especially those from traditionally underrepresented populations, have access to these opportunities for good jobs and high-growth career pathways.

Apply to become an Apprentice Trailblazer

We are calling on all youth apprentices and recent graduates interested in becoming Apprentice Trailblazers to coordinate with your Registered Apprenticeship sponsors on the application. The application deadline for the first cohort is Sept. 30, and we plan to announce the first cohort of youth Apprentice Trailblazers during National Apprenticeship Week, Nov. 13-19.

Visit the Apprentice Trailblazer page to find the application and learn more about the initiative.

Please spread the word throughout your networks, encourage youth apprentices and recent graduates to apply, and remember to tag us on social media with #ApprenticeTrailblazers and #ApprenticeshipUSA.

Brent Parton is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department’s Employment and Training Administration.

Watch Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su announce the Apprentice Trailblazers Program.

My Hometown Community College & The Change It’s Made In Me

This was crossposted by the U.S. Department of Education’s blog, Homeroom.

By: Ángel Gabriel Garcia, Student at Oxnard College

My name is Ángel Gabriel Garcia, and I am a proud first-generation community college student at Oxnard College. I was born and raised in Oxnard, California, a city that’s often ridiculed and overlooked due to its high concentration of immigrant families and poverty. The ugly and negative stereotypes I’ve heard about my community over the years have instilled a burning passion in me to prove the cynics wrong and show my community’s beauty. Thanks to my community college, I’ve been able to start doing just that.

My community college experience has given me the support and space to develop my academic skills and advocate for the people and spaces I care about. For me, community colleges offered hope and an opportunity to stop the deepening cycles of poverty that so many immigrant families tragically fall into. Community colleges provide a path for young people to bring generational transformation to their families through better-paying careers and life-changing opportunities. I have personally been blessed with immigrant parents who have encouraged my siblings and me to achieve a higher level of education. My community college has given my family that opportunity and helped countless neighbors, friends, and relatives of mine to do the same.

I’ve also been given a chance to participate in our Associated Student Government (ASG), which has given me incredible experiences to speak out on issues impacting my community and to develop my leadership skills as a young adult. I’ve combined those skills with my passion for art, which I use to raise awareness on important issues impacting students and my community, such as mental health, LGBTQIA+ rights, and the rights of undocumented families, including some of my own relatives. After graduating, I plan to eventually transfer to a four-year university where I’ll continue majoring in art and exploring opportunities to make an impact in the community I love.

In short, my community college experience has helped me blossom and pursue the goals I have set for myself and my family. My community college has provided me with the resources and education I need to get ahead. I never feel like a number on this campus, and I know no other place that would have given me this opportunity. I am eternally grateful to Oxnard and its community college for shaping me into the person I am today and I hope to continue this new cycle of growth, education, and hope for my family in the years to come.

Ángel Gabriel Garcia is a proud first generation community college student at Oxnard College where he is majoring in Studio Arts. Ángel is the Senator of Academic Affairs in the college Associated Student Government. Ángel is in his second year at Oxnard College.

Student Loan Debt Relief Do’s and Don’ts

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom.

student loan debt relief do's and don'ts



DON’T pay anyone who contacts you with promises of debt relief or loan forgiveness. YOU DO NOT NEED TO PAY ANYONE TO OBTAIN DEBT RELIEF. The application will be free and easy to use when it opens in October.

DON’T reveal your FSA ID or account information or password to anyone who contacts you. The Department of Education and your federal student loan servicer will never call or email you asking for this information.

DON’T ever give personal or financial information to an unfamiliar caller. When in doubt, hang up and call your student loan servicer directly. You can find your federal student loan servicer’s contact information at

DON’T refinance your federal student loans unless you know the risks. If you refinance federal student loans that are eligible for debt relief into a private loan, you will lose out on important benefits like one-time debt relief and flexible repayment plans for federal loans.

DO sign up at to be notified when the Student Loan Debt Relief application becomes available.

DO create an FSA ID at You will not need it for the debt relief application but having an FSA ID can allow you to easily access accurate information on your loan and make sure FSA can contact you directly, helping you equip yourself against scammers trying to contact you. Log in to your current account on and keep your contact info up to date. If you need help logging in follow these tips on accessing your account.

DO make sure your loan servicer has your most current contact information. If you don’t know who your servicer is, you can log into and see your servicer(s) in your account.

DO report scammers to the Federal Trade Commission by visiting

Peer to Peer: Career Advice for Aspiring Education Researchers from Pathways to the Education Sciences Alumni

This post was crossposted from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) blog, Inside IES Research

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to broaden participation in education research. Pathways grants are awarded to minority serving institutions and their partners to provide up to year-long training fellowships to undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, and masters students. Each Pathways program has a specific education theme such as literacy, equity/social justice in education, student success, and education pipelines. Pathways fellows receive an introduction to scientific research methods and their program’s education theme, as well as meaningful opportunities to participate in education research, professional development, and mentoring. Currently, there are seven funded Pathways programs; IES recently launched the newest program focused on learning analytics and data science to the University of California, Irvine. Over 250 students have participated in Pathways, and many (39 at last count) have already started doctoral programs. In honor of HBCU week (September 7-10), Hispanic-Serving Institutions Week (September 13-19), and Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15- October 15), we reached out to six Pathways alumni who are in graduate school to ask them for advice for other students who wish to pursue graduate study related to education research. Here is what they shared with us.

Comfort Abode

RISE Training ProgramUniversity of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Indiana University

My number one piece of advice for students who want to become education researchers would be to keep in mind the purpose of your research. If nobody understands it, it is not helpful. And in order for people to understand it, you yourself need to understand it. You cannot teach what you do not know. Especially considering that the research is in education, the goal should be to educate teachers, students, faculty, or whomever, about what is being studied and (hopefully) steps that can be taken towards improving that area. You have to keep your audience in mind and while it should not be “dumbed down,” you have to make sure that your point is getting across clearly. In order for that to happen, you have to know what you are talking about. Project RISE was especially helpful in the fact that there were a lot of mentors and people willing to help you understand the scope of the research as well as provide comments and feedback on areas to improve upon.

Jeremy Flood

RISE Training ProgramNorth Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington/Pennsylvania State University

Doctoral Student, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University

My only advice would be to remember the mission of solving challenges in education. Within the body of education research, there are several ways one can accomplish this—whether it is by policy research, grounded theory, ethnography, or experiments, there are quite a diversity of tools available at a researcher’s disposal, so much so that it may seem overwhelming at first.  Do not stress if you find this true; you are not the first or the last to feel overwhelmed! Instead, use this as an opportunity to rededicate yourself to the mission and allow your dedication to choose a research path that is best for you. Whichever one, two, or three (or more) that you choose, make sure that the end goal seeks to improve the practice of education.

Jessala Grijalva

AWARDSS Training Program, University of Arizona/College of Applied Science and Technology at the University of Arizona

Doctoral Student, University of Notre Dame

I advise Pathways fellows to take the time to reflect and internalize the cultural competency components of the program. The Pathways program will not only prepare you with the hard and soft skills that you need to be a successful researcher, but also help you become an all-around culturally competent researcher. Sometimes, we assume that as students of color or students from diverse backgrounds that we are inherently culturally competent; yet, there is so much more to learn and to be aware of. From my experience as a participant in the Pathways program, I’ve learned of ways to extend cultural competency beyond research and into my interactions with other researchers, colleagues, mentors/mentees, and the broader community. To be an effective researcher, it’s not only important to conduct culturally component research, but to also work with people of all walks of life, and to be able to disseminate our research and findings to the public. Training in cultural competency is very rare and very valuable–and something we may not fully appreciate—so take advantage of this opportunity and make cultural competency an important priority in your conduct as a researcher.

Camille Lewis

PURPOSE ProgramFlorida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Doctoral Student, Florida State University

There is an African proverb that states: “Knowledge is like a garden. If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.” On the quest to become an education researcher, it is easy to get caught up in the hype of being “the expert.”  My #1 piece of advice to anyone who is interested in education research is to remain a student of life. Your journey to becoming an education researcher will be filled with many opportunities to learn, adapt, and understand the process of learning. Embrace these experiences; allow your researcher identity to be shaped and influenced by new discoveries and new interests. Continue to seek new information and allow your knowledge base to be cultivated. My experience as a public-school teacher, PURPOSE fellow, and doctoral student has shown me the importance and necessity of continually seeking advice, experiences, knowledge, and professional development related to learning and education. This pursuit of knowledge has informed and shaped not just my research, but my life outside academia as well. I never allow myself to become a “know it all.” This keeps me humble and allows me to continue to make improvements in every facet of my life.

Christopher Terrazas, MA

Pathways ProgramUniversity of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA; HSI)

Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin

UTSA Pathways was instrumental in developing my identity as a researcher and graduate student. The other day, I described my experiences as being in a rocket, and Pathways provided the fuel to take off and get one step closer to my goals as a researcher. During my time, I made it a priority to be curious, always. I did this by attending all seminars offered and asking questions—even questions that I thought were not the right ones to ask at the time. You never know who may share a similar experience or perhaps a differing one to support you in your endeavors. Be bold and use your voice as an instrument to understand the world of research and graduate school during this exciting journey. It is crucial to get into this mindset because this will be your experience, perhaps your first. You will want to make sure that you are well prepared for this process as an aspiring researcher and scholar because this is your future. With that said, my number one piece of advice is to look inward to reflect on your own life experiences. Use these thoughts to feed your inner sense of self because you know more than anyone what you want for your future to be.

Erica Zamora

Pathways ProgramCalifornia State University, Sacramento

Doctoral Student, University of Arizona

The Pathway Fellows Program had a tremendous impact on my growth as a scholar and education researcher. My advice to students is to engage in research that not only reflect their scholarly interests but also reflect their values as community members and educators. My experience in the program gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of social justice and equity work in research. Education has the potential to transform communities and encourage growth and development while perpetuating various forms of oppression. Engaging in education research that centers the voices of and the issues that historically marginalized groups experience could lead to transformative outcomes at postsecondary institutions.


Written by Katina Stapleton (, co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions, including Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian-Serving Institutions, American Indian Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities, Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISI), Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Predominantly Black Institutions, Native American-Serving, Nontribal Institutions, and any other minority-serving institution as specified in request for applications. 

This blog is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs. For more information, see this DEIA update from Commissioners Elizabeth Albro (National Center for Education Research) and Joan McLaughlin (National Center for Special Education Research).

First-Ever RISE Awardee Announced

This was crossposted from the U.S. Department of Education blog, Homeroom.

Need a reason for celebration? In the Recognition Programs Unit of ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach, we have several of them spread throughout the year.  The newest recognition award joining the family, structured to shine a spotlight good work and ignite more positive contributions, while engaging state and local stakeholders with their federal education agency, is the Recognizing Inspiring School Employees award.

In April 2019, Congress passed the Recognizing Achievement in Classified School Employees Act enabling the U.S. Department of Education to begin honoring one extraordinary education support professional annually and that fall, ED launched the first cycle of the award, with nominations from governors and state education agencies, often working together, due by November 1, 2020.

Even under pandemic circumstances, ED received 32 nominations from 20 states for the RISE award including nominations for paraprofessionals, nutrition workers, custodians, security personnel, bus drivers, and other paraprofessionals. Their contributions to schools and students – especially during this pandemic year – were remarkable. The 18 internal and external reviewers remarked just how deserving they ALL were! For this reason, ED has encouraged every participating state to honor its finalists.

While we received many inspiring stories, one individual stood out. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona selected Mr. Melito Ramirez, Intervention Specialist, at Walla Walla High School, in Walla Walla, Washington for this honor, announcing the award in this video.

Secretary Miguel Cardona announces first-ever RISE award recipient

Over his distinguished 40-year career, Ramirez has worked for multiple school districts in more than a dozen different roles such as migrant home visitor, summer school coordinator, special education secretary, and bus driver. Ramirez now conducts home visits, bridges the gap between home and school for Spanish speaking families, and works to secure the mental health and technological resources students need.

Ramirez is known for his help in organizing a multilingual adult night school. He supports students as they apply for and participate in youth leadership programs — including rising well before dawn each weekend to drive them five hours to programming across the state. Ramirez is also credited with diminishing tensions among rival gang members in the 1990s when gang conflict was high in the Walla Walla area by coordinating supervised out-of-school activities.

Mr. Ramirez with his award

Today, we celebrate Mr. Ramirez for demonstrating courage and resourcefulness over decades of service. We are reminded of the critical work of all classified school employees in supporting student success.  Individuals interested in nominating or applying should contact their governor’s office to inquire about state-specific process. Governors’ office and state education agency program administrators may contact with any questions and to indicate a state’s plans to participate for the coming cycle.  We look forward to celebrating many education support professionals in the years to come!

Andrea Suarez Falken is Director of the Recognizing Inspiring School Employees Award, as well as Director of U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools, and ED’s Facilities, Health, and Environment Liaison.

Trust the Process and Be Proactive

Back in summer of 2011, I remember attending my first-year orientation of my undergraduate journey at the University of Arizona.  I specifically remember the session where I had the chance to declare a major before building my schedule for the fall semester. For some inexplicable reason, I was really drawn to the family studies and human development major but ended up declaring a major in nutrition. I made this decision because at the time I was convinced that I was going to become a pediatrician and needed a major that would put me on the track to be prepared for medical school.

Flash forward to the end of my first semester of college, and I realized that the nutrition major was not going to be for me. Just in that semester, I had taken two science labs and lectures, which were challenging. Looking through the course plan for the next three years, I saw that the science courses only continued to stack up! I stopped myself for moment and made an appointment with the academic adviser for family studies and human development major. I met with her and decided that this major fit my interests better.

While I enjoyed the classes in my new major, I now had to rethink my long-term plan given that my interests and long-term plans did not align. I debated the route I would take after college. I contemplated various graduate school plans such as working towards a master’s in social work, a law degree, or a master’s in marriage and family therapy. All I was sure of was that I wanted to give back to the Hispanic community and work with families.

My junior year rolled around and a random e-mail popped into my inbox about a paid summer experience. I applied to the program not knowing how much it would change my life and lead me right to where I needed to be. The program I had applied for was the McNair Scholars Program, which supports underrepresented students in the pursuit of a Ph.D.

Before the program, I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was or that I could make a career out of research. Through this program, I learned about conducting research, but most importantly, I learned how I could support the Hispanic community through research endeavors. The program supported me through the doctoral program application process and helped me build my confidence in my future! I applied to 10 doctoral programs, from which I was accepted to seven. I am thankful to the amazing McNair Scholars director who helped me through the complicated decision process for choosing a doctoral program. I choose to pursue my Ph.D. in human development and family studies at the Pennsylvania State University.

I always knew which area of research I wanted to pursue. Now, I am less than one year away from completing my Ph.D. in human development and family studies and now I’m looking to pursue a career in policy and research. My advice to those who may be just starting their higher education journey is to always trust yourself in your decisions because only you know yourself best. Also, it’s okay to not have your full plan figured out right away. At the same time, make sure you use the resources (professors, advisers, programs, friends, community center, etc.) around you to help you through the process. Sometimes, it is the experiences and times of confusion that lead us straight to the career we have always envisioned. Even as doctoral student, I changed my career plans. The world is full of opportunities, go get them, be proactive and trust yourself!

Lorena Aceves is a doctoral student at the Pennsylvania State University and a summer 2019 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

The Challenge of College

For me, I knew that every part of the K-12 educational journey was meant to prepare me to get accepted into a great college. The application process was challenging and competitive, yet I managed to be accepted to a great state school. However, what happened after I got in was a foreign concept to me, and I was unaware of what was to come. So much focus had been placed on getting into college, but no one ever told me how to succeed once there. For instance, my freshman classes averaged two hundred students and were filled with classmates who had graduated at the top of their class from prestigious high schools. The thought of raising my hand and asking for help while hundreds of pairs of eyes stared at me was horrifying. Therefore, I attempted to do it on my own and pretended that I knew what was happening in class.

The reality was that I could not keep up with the material, especially in my biological calculus course. The class was more advanced than what I had learned in high school, and I did not have strong studying and organizational habits. As hard as I tried, I scored poorly on my exams, and my confidence started to break down. I felt alone as I watched my classmates earn higher grades and answer questions without hesitation. I felt like I could not tell my parents because they had so much to worry about back home and were already having a hard time with me being away. If I dropped the class, then I would no longer be a full-time student. This meant that I would lose some of my financial aid, which I could not afford to do. The idea of failing this class continued to cross my mind, and it dawned on me what a failure I was. I couldn’t help but think of my family members, teachers and scholarship donors who had believed in me. I am not sure whether it was fear, pride or a bit of both that led me to remain silent and not ask for help.

I was home over winter break when I received my grade, and I couldn’t keep this away from my parents any longer. I had earned a D in biological calculus. I thought that they would be disappointed. I worried that they would feel as if all the sacrifices they had made for my future would go down the drain because of this mark on my transcript. However, my mom’s reaction could not have been more graceful and understanding. Instead, she wiped away my tears and asked about my struggles through the class.

I had allowed for my struggles to eat me up inside for so long. However, I came to realize that this one grade did not have to define me, my parents’ sacrifices, or the community I represent. I did not need to burden myself with thoughts of being a disappointment or another hopeless statistic. What would truly define this moment in my college career would be my next steps. That winter break I searched through all the resources on my school’s website, re-read my new student handbook, and found ways to improve my time management and study habits. I began the semester by meeting with my advisor and older college friends, making appointments at the academic success center, and attending the tutoring sessions. I learned the importance of shining light on my weaknesses and advocating for myself.

Each university has a wide variety of resources, whether you are struggling with academics, living situations, mental health, or finances. There are people who can offer guidance and support. However, no one can help you if you don’t admit that you need it and ask for it. Since then, my GPA has improved each semester, and I am not afraid to raise my hand in class when I am lost. I have encouraged younger students to self-advocate. I remind them that hardships will come, but they can decide how they respond. Most importantly, I have continued to rely on the unconditional love and support from my parents by sharing all parts of my college experience, even the most challenging ones.

Valentina Tovar is a graduate of Texas A&M University and a Summer 2018 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Follow the Rainbow of Happiness

As a first-generation student, I felt intimidated by the idea of college. I knew I wanted to attend college but had no idea what college entailed other than  anecdotal experiences I had heard from my teachers. I was accepted and offered a substantive financial aid package from the University of California, Merced (UC Merced). My high school A.V.I.D. teacher, Mr. Beale, emphasized the importance of moving, “as far away as possible to reach [my] full potential.” I chose to attend UC Merced with high academic expectations. I grew up in San Diego, CA, only ten minutes away from the border in a busy city full of diversity. Moving to UC Merced put me nine hours away from my family and in a rural area that I never had experienced. The geographic and ethnic demographic of UC Merced was something that impacted me in a way I had never experienced. For instance, I had never even seen a sky so vividly dark with little light pollution.

I had also never lived on my own without my family and at the age of seventeen, everything felt new, exciting, and intimidating. While I created a strong support system at UC Merced, I still had severe issues with self-efficacy. I felt insecure as if I wasn’t at the same academic rigor as my peers. This comparison was self-deteriorating. It affected the way I saw myself, how I interacted with others, and externally affected my academics. I wasn’t happy where I was at.

I signed up for the Success Mentor Program, an organization that paired me up with a mentor. I was paired with Diana Hernandez. The Success Mentor Program allowed for growth in a way that was fully supported by my mentor. Meetings with my mentor were decided by us and our conversations were not limited. I was supported in every way possible, and Diana always had a resource for any issue that arose. I felt comfortable speaking with her about any topic, which also made me feel confident in any new experience I would have. I had someone who was older, wiser, and successful guiding me over similar obstacles she had experienced. More importantly, Diana fully understood my discomfort about being in an environment where I felt like I did not belong. She explained, “When you feel like that, remember that every single person is in that room with you. No one is better than another; you are all in the same room.This continues to resonate with me.

Although one person could not cure my self-efficacy issues, it burst a sense of confidence in the way that I approached college. But, building a sense of confidence was only one step towards the ladder of achievement. I was placed on academic probation during my first year of college and was forced to re-evaluate my focus and happiness. I was a bio-engineering major at that time and was more interested in writing than any other course work. I changed majors to Management and Business Economics with a minor in Professional Writing. I felt like I had failed myself in that point of time. However, this decision changed my perception. I had the opportunity to pursue activities that I enjoyed. Previously, I consistently felt drained studying material that I did not find as interesting as writing. This was the first time I was able to turn a hobby into something professional. I often wrote for fun but didn’t think I could make tangible change through my writing. I joined The Prodigy News, The UC Merced school newspaper, and was able to witness the impact that writing had and its potential for stirring up change when utilized properly. This thirst for change led me to join the Associated Students of University of California, Merced.

This change of mindset created a ripple effect on my of happiness. Even when college got increasingly more difficult and I felt like quitting, I didn’t because what I was doing made me feel happy and fulfilled. I sincerely encourage others to follow their rainbow of happiness. Go apply for jobs, join organizations, and enroll in classes that create a sense of inner fulfillment. If you do things that make you happy, you will always want to move forward.

Katherine Cervantes is a graduate of the University of California, Merced and a Fall 2017 intern with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.