By Irene Castillón
This summer, I had the opportunity to see my former student Lucia González graduate from Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program. This marked the third time I saw her graduate (the first time in high school and the second from her undergraduate studies) and the third time tears of cariño and orgullo ran across my cheeks. She did it, as I always knew she would! I met Lucia when she was a junior in my U.S. history class at East Palo Alto Academy high school and a student in my advisory. Over the last seven years, Lucia has taught me lessons of resiliency, lessons of advocacy, and lessons of mentorship. Lucia was one of the first students who taught me to be the mentor I wish I had as a first-generation college student.
In my action research as a Heinemann Fellow, I am exploring the following question: In what ways can a high school community support their first-generation, Latinx college students as they navigate their first year at a college setting?
Lucia was one of fifteen advisees that year. Upon graduating from high school, all of them enrolled in a college, but only two graduated with their undergraduate degrees. I chose my question to research, to act, and to undo the systemic oppression, factors that historically have pushed mine and thousands of other students out of college.
Acts of Cariño
I was determined the next group of my advisees (my research subjects) would have a different experience. To address my research question, I have acted with the intention of interrupting the inequities existent on college campuses, specifically for first-generation Latinx students.
At the end of the first semester, I conducted in-person interviews with each of the thirteen students who graciously agreed to be part of my action research. The last question in the interview protocol was open-ended; I thanked them for sharing how their first semester was going and then asked, “Is there anything else that you would like to share with me?” One student, Maria, closed our interview by sharing, “It is just really nice to know that people from my high school still care about me and how I am doing even after high school.” Maria speaks to the cariño that I hoped was infused in my question “Is there anything else that you would like to share with me?”
In addition, I sent the students check-in texts throughout the year and I responded to students in the journals they kept as part of my research. At the end of the second semester, I began to notice my students’ journal entries reflecting feelings of stress, fatigue, and doubt. In May, I decided to make them care packages as another way of demonstrating my care and making them feel known and valued.
In her final journal reflection, Angela wrote, “I was very happy to receive a care package because I did not expect anything at all. I have not even received a care package from my parents (they do not know what a care package is).”
I was in the same boat as Angela when I was in college. I remember going in and out of the Brown University mailroom as a first-year student, hoping a care package would come but knowing my mom and dad didn’t know what it was, not because they did not want to know but because they did not have the opportunity to experience college (in fact, they showed their care in multiple ways—my mom used to wrap Tapatío hot sauce bottles with bath towels, in my luggage, because she knew the dining halls did not have them and that sending me some would mean a taste of home, quite literally).
Included in the care package that Angela and my other students received were items and notes with reminders to keep having a growth mindset and a note from me. There was also an eight-by-ten-inch page that read, “Good Luck with Finals,” which teachers from Luis Valdez Leadership Academy (LVLA) signed with personalized messages of affirmations for students. In their final journal entry, all students wrote that the care package had a positive impact on their mentality as they completed their finals. Dayana shared the shift in mindset that this act of care had on her.
“I had given up during finals. I remember shutting down my computer in frustration and behind it laid my motivational little basket. After looking through my basket, re-reading Ms. Castillon’s handwritten letter (and cheesy jokes!) I took a minute to reflect on the people whose shoulders I stand upon. It strengthened me with more motivation to open my laptop and continue writing that essay. I received a 92/100. It is unexplainable how amazing it feels to have a whole community cheering you on . . . those words brought me back to the goal I set in high school—to go to college. I thought to myself, ‘your goal is not complete just because you’re in college girl. You still need a degree.’”
Dayana highlights the impact of having the support of her high school community and the motivation that it inspired in her to finish the year off strong.
Acts of Orgullo
Throughout their first year of college, I have reminded my students how proud I am of them, but what makes me proudest is seeing the orgullo they have in themselves and for their community.
Dayana finished her second semester with a 3.8 GPA. This was a huge improvement from the 1.0 GPA she earned first semester, which caused her to be dismissed from the university. During winter break, we sat, we ate, we reflected, we cried . . . and she wrote a letter of appeal to return to the university. Her appeal was granted, she returned and had the comeback of the year! When asked to reflect on her first year of college, she mentioned feeling proud of herself because she persevered through the spring semester and because she wrote a model paper for one of her classes. Dayana proved to herself that she belongs and that she can and will complete her college career.
Dayana and my participants have also learned to take pride in their setbacks and were transparent about sharing them throughout the year. For Dayana, she learned the importance of going to office hours, keeping organized, and meeting with academic and financial advisors. Dayana shared these insights in a video she and the participants made for the seniors of LVLA as they were getting ready to make their college decisions. Asking the participants to make the video was an intentional act to form a community of peer support. She says, “The mistakes I made will not only serve as a lesson for myself, but a lesson for my whole community. I take pride in my mistakes because I want to prevent current seniors from making any of the mistakes I made my first semester.”
Dayana’s acts of making sure other first-generation Latinx students from her high school do not experience the same failure demonstrates the communal pride she has in not only making sure she succeeds but that her community does as well.
Karool, another participant, echoes this sentiment for community, expressing her purpose for pursuing higher education: “I am in college to receive a degree, a degree that I want to use in order to support my community/family, in order to positively impact the lives of others.”
As this school year begins, I am excited to add a group of twelve more participants to this research project as they pave their college journeys, with acts of cariño and orgullo, and in spirit of community along the way.
Irene Castillón (San Jose, CA) is the assistant principal and history teacher at Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School in San Jose, CA, where where she seeks to build structures and programs that affirm students by fostering teaching and learning that is culturally competent and empowering. Irene was also the recipient of the Phyllis Henry Lindstrom Educational Leadership Award and in 2016 and was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the #LatinosTeach campaign. With her leadership and teaching largely influenced by her own experiences, Irene entered education to advocate for equity, tolerance and justice.