A Corps Member Returns to Her Alma Mater to Teach
August 30, 2016
Azucena Garcia not only shares life experiences with her students — she shares their alma mater. Ms. Garcia attended Gompers Middle School and Gompers Secondary School, public schools serving a low-income neighborhood in Southeast San Diego, from 1997 to 2005. While Azucena excelled at Gompers thanks to her dedicated teachers, the schools were often labeled as failing and even dangerous.
After Azucena graduated, the Gompers schools began their transition into charter academies under the authorization of San Diego Unified School District and in cooperation with the University of California, San Diego. Azucena returned to work as a tutor and in the Office of Technology and Innovation, and she taught math for a year with a temporary permit, before the school director recommended she seek certification with Teach For America-San Diego.
Azucena is now in her first year as a Teach For America corps member. She teaches math in the same rooms where she was inspired by teachers years before.
Q: What do you remember about Gompers from when you were a student?
A: People from San Diego might remember that this area had a lot more gang activity, and a lot of our student population was involved in gangs around the neighborhood. The hallways were cut off with gates that could be locked. They used to close them all up at lunch to prevent students from going into the classrooms. We had campus police and from time-to-time we had riots — gang-related or race-related — during lunch. On occasion, students were even pepper-sprayed by police. I cannot imagine that happening now. It’s a different culture. It’s safer now.
Q: After Gompers, you went on to Reed College and graduated from Lewis & Clark College. At what point did you decide you wanted to become a teacher?
A: I left thinking I didn’t know what I wanted to do, maybe engineering, maybe sociology. I always had been good at math, but I didn’t take any math courses, I didn’t want to be the math person anymore. But then I was at Reed College and I saw how motivated people were to learn, and realized how much my experience was different. Some students talked about going on safari in Kenya over summer, others had their tuition fully paid by their parents, or were given brand new cars at graduation, or couldn't even do their laundry because they always had someone doing those kind of things for them. There were students who said they had never been friends with people of color before. It was shocking. At that age I was helping my parents navigate different systems because they didn't speak English, I managed their online bills because they didn't know how to use a computer. I felt shocked and angry, and like, why didn’t I have this opportunity?
After my freshman year, I made the decision to come back to my community to teach math. I saw how much of a need there was for that to happen, and I had to be the one to do it. It was my community, some place I cared about, and I didn’t know if anybody else would.
Q: When you came back, there was some transformation already happening. What’s changed and how do you fit into that change?
A: The year I graduated high school was the first year they started the middle school charter. We, the students, weren’t happy about it at the time, that they were changing our school.
But years later I came back to visit Dolores Garcia and found something very different. The students were wearing uniforms. The police were gone. The fences were gone. The classroom that had been my history classroom was a computer lab full of up-to-date, working computers. The campus was inviting, like the students wanted to be there.
You have to remember, part of the reason I made it was because I had really amazing teachers who cared about me, and that’s part of the reason I became a teacher. I had those positive role models. I didn’t know many people who went to college, and those people who I did know were my teachers.
Now when I walk around I almost forget that I used to have lunch right there years ago, that I went to school here. It’s just a good feeling to know that people really do care, things are getting better and the students are getting accepted at college. Thanks to our partnership with UCSD, 46 of our seniors last year got a full ride. It’s just great to be a part of that now.
Q: What are your hopes for your students this year?
A: I really want to educate my students on the importance of getting a college degree — beyond the career and social status factors. I want them to know how important it is for social change. As students of color, getting out there, taking advantage of UCSD and entering the workforce — that makes a much different impact on our society and our nation. It’s much bigger than sitting in the classroom or doing homework.