in Education Graduate Student
Claudia Cervantes Nickel
"I'm not really sure of what I want to do." Those were Abraham Peña's words when I first met him almost a year ago when I was his instructor for an Education course. As the end of this semester approaches, I am speechless at the transformation that Abraham has experienced and that I have had the privilege to witness. The Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program provided me with the opportunity to take part of this exciting, transformative, and empowering experience for Abraham, and in the process I have been impacted too.
When Abraham asked me at the end of last semester to be his mentor I did not hesitate to say yes. Having been his instructor for two consecutive semesters I was very familiar with his outstanding writing skills, his superior degree of intellectual abilities, and his true commitment to his education. However, he had often approached me after class with questions that revealed that it was not his academic success what concerned him, but whether he could find a space in the academic world where his identity and real passion could be validated.
Through the IE Program, Abraham became my teaching assistant for two sections of an Education course: Applied Linguistics & ESL Methods. He was majoring in Bilingual Education, a major that he had just switched to due to his interest in linguistics and the education of minority students. He had also asked for help before to improve his interpersonal and communication skills, so I thought he would be perfect for this role. My impression of him did not abate as the semester progressed. Although he took a part in the administrative aspect, I was more interested in involving him in the planning and teaching aspects of the course. We planned together prior to the beginning of the course and I tried to incorporate his input in the lessons throughout the semester as much as possible. I also gave him opportunities to conduct activities that I had previously planned and gradually increased these teaching opportunities by allowing him to choose and plan (with my help) lessons about topics that I knew he loved. Pretty soon, Abraham began to show an increased sense of confidence and improvement of interpersonal and teaching skills. When he had to stand and teach in front of the class, he would no longer present himself as a playful classmate to the rest of the students, but as an assertive, and well-prepared teaching assistant, while maintaining a democratic, interactive, and dynamic atmosphere.
While having him as a teaching assistance twice a week was no doubt beneficial to both of us, that is only one facet of the empowering process that the IE program allowed us to experience. Abraham and I maintained close communication throughout the semester, which focused not just on teaching, but mainly on his research interests then issues of identity and its connection to graduate school, and the many intricacies of the world of academia. At the beginning of the semester Abraham showed interest in researching the impact of accent on Latino/a English language learners.
However, he did not seem particularly passionate about it. Also, although he was becoming a natural as a college instructor, he did not appear too excited to start teaching in the elementary schools. Having to explore his research interests made him go through a process of self-reflection in which his hesitation was evident again. Yet this time, he was able to confront the deeper issues and realize that embracing his identity was the key that would open the door to his real passion. This was not an easy process, and all I could do was to be there for him and support him by facilitating the affirmation of an identity that he had kept long subdued. But now, he is ready to fly with no hesitation to where he really wants to be. Abraham has now changed his major to Youth and Community Studies and has chosen Sociology as his field of study for graduate school. His research will concentrate on the role of education, gender, and sexuality of Mexican American students.
Coming from a very similar cultural, regional, and family background from Abraham, has provided me with the cultural intuition that allowed me to see not just Abraham's concerns and doubts, but his amazing potential. I was told once that I should choose a mentor who will believe in me even when I can't believe in myself. This is the kind of mentor that I tried to be for Abraham, and in return I have been greatly benefited as well. His passion and enthusiasm has been a source of inspiration for my own work, and our intellectual conversations have challenged my own research and have helped me grow as a future scholar and professor.
As a first generation immigrant student myself, I believe that the obstacles for minority students to succeed in graduate school are not reduced to the complicated application process, funding, or logistical issues. They are often also related to the inability to negotiate our identities in a cultural context that subjugates them. Learning to validate ourselves despite others' expectations while learning to navigate a complicated system that tends to exclude us takes boldness and discernment. Supporting each other in the way is a real source of mutual empowerment. Abraham, who would hardly speak out in class a year ago, is now maintaining communication with important scholars around the country about his research topic and has developed a well defined plan of action for graduate school. Thanks to the IE Program, the uncertainty is gone, and all that is left for him is a path full of possibility for the creation of ground-breaking knowledge. I will always cherish this mutually enlightening and inspiring experience, and I hope to have more opportunities to take part again in this powerful program.