With Hispanic Heritage Month upon us, I’ve been thinking about what I can teach my middle school Spanish 1 students — lessons far beyond how to express themselves in another language. Growing up as a first-generation American, I never heard much about Latino leaders in the United States or globally. While I had my parents as role models, the leaders I saw in my classrooms and in the news never seemed to look much like me.
During my time at UMBC, I began to recognize the ways this lack of visible leadership and advocacy for marginalized kids translated to glaring disparities in the education system. As a Sondheim Public Affairs Scholar, I volunteered with disadvantaged Baltimore students, many of whom had special needs. As I did, I grew increasingly frustrated with a system that didn’t grant the same opportunities to all my students – particularly ones who struggled not because they weren’t capable, but because of systems that were not set up to address their unique needs and situations.
As my time with UMBC came to a close, I knew I wanted to continue public service work — not for the sake of simply doing good, but to create the kind of meaningful change I deeply believe in. I joined Teach For America in Baltimore with a vow: I will never let a student get pushed through an education system without the keys for opportunities. I set high goals for all my kids and I expect them to meet them. Many of my students may be low-income, or first-generation Americans, or have special needs, but I refuse to let those be reasons they don’t succeed.
My kids and I talk a lot about what it means to be not only a student but also a student leader. We have an affirmation in my class that ends with the reminder that they are each leaders with value, power, and ideas. We talk about what it means for leadership to come from within and how to truly see yourself as a leader. For many of my students, this isn’t easy – they don’t see many people in leadership positions with whom they relate. I think about the person they see when they look at me at the front of the room. That person has to be someone they feel connected to and trust at both the academic and personal level.
I’m here because I don’t want kids to grow up wondering, like I did, where the successful people who look like them are. I’m here because I want every kid in Baltimore to have the chance to go to college if he or she wants. I’m here because I believe that every single student in Baltimore has incredible potential, and I want each of them believe that too. I’m here because I found who I am and what my purpose is. At UMBC, I was able to find my purpose through public service; my purpose has been strengthened and supported by the network of Teach For America corps members, alumni, and our many partners fighting for equal educational opportunities for all students. As you think about how you want to live out your purpose after graduation, I hope you’ll consider joining us.
Micaela Perez Ferrero is a 2013 UMBC graduate. She currently teaches Spanish at Deep Creek Middle School as a Teach For America-Baltimore corps member.