First Generation College Grad To School Leader – By Age 24
August 3, 2017
Cipriano Vargas made the most of his first year out of the corps. He moved back to his hometown, was accepted to law school and mounted a successful run for the Vista Unified School Board.
Here he shares more about his ascension from first-generation college graduate to elected official – by the age of 24.
Q: Before we get into your first year as an alumnus, can you tell us why you joined Teach For America?
A: For me, joining Teach For America was an opportunity to go into education and support students from similar backgrounds as mine. In college, I was heavily invested as student trustee for Cal State University system. I found that many first generation college students and students of color were struggling –and those were some of our top performing students in high school. I wanted to see what we could do in K-12 pipeline to ensure all students are better prepared and have the resources and skill set to be successful. With TFA, I saw the opportunity to mold young individuals.
Q: You hoped to teach high school, but actually taught kindergarten. What did you learn from your experience?
A: It was a phenomenal experience. We started out with home visits through KIPP-San Antonio, getting to know the families we were serving. The majority were Latino, with about 80 percent coming from low-income households and the rest from middle class families. To see the difference was definitely an eye opener for me. As an educator, it helped me understand the resources families needed and what was available within the different neighborhoods. In my first year I focused on getting to know the community, being present at events, going to events parents invited me to. The connections benefited me greatly not only in my first year, but moving into my second year of teaching. When parents saw a male kindergarten teacher, it was a bit of a shocker. As I made a priority out of relationship building, we created a trusting relationship.
Q: What impact did you have on your students?
A: I taught Spanish at a dual language campus, and the majority of students, around 60 percent, were coming in with English as their first language. Not only did we open the pathway for another language, but also to the culture and traditions, especially connecting it to San Antonio and the community. With culturally responsive teaching, we aimed to create individuals who are well-rounded. It wasn’t just about academic standards, but creating students who care, show empathy and respect to each other, and understand people come from different walks of life.
Q: Your first year out of the corps was busy: You moved back home, applied to law school, and at 24 become the youngest person to win a school board seat in Vista. Can you walk me through those big changes?
A: I got involved with Leadership for Educational Equity in San Antonio – which is working to create leaders who will continue education advocacy and be a bridge to the community. Through LEE, I attended conferences, their national organizing workshop, a campaign boot camp, and completed a summer fellowship in East Los Angeles at Inner City Struggle. Through all these opportunities, I saw leaders doing great things in their respective communities. This made me reflect on what was happening in Vista, my hometown. It’s the people who grew up in the community who need to come back and be the change we wish to see.
Q: And that led to a run for office?
A: An opportunity appeared when a school board seat came up for election. At first, it seemed like a long shot. As I went through training with LEE, demystifying the political process and talking to community leaders, it seemed more doable. We gathered volunteers, fund raised and knocked on a lot of doors. Many people saw me as a young candidate, but they also saw a passionate candidate from the community who was informed and knew the educational system. More often than
I not, I left doorways with a vote in my favor.
Q: What do you hope to achieve at the district?
A: Many things, but I’ll list three: Increasing access to early childhood programs, establishing dual language campuses and better preparing our students who pursue postsecondary education. I had the opportunity to go to college and we have a memo of understanding with Cal State-San Marcos that guarantees our graduates admission. I would like to see more of those opportunities. While I do not think all students need to go to college, I do think the doors should be there and the opportunities that higher education brings to an individual.
Q: There is a saying that Teach For America is not a program you do, but a movement you join. Does that square with your experience?
A: Being involved with Leadership Educational Equity, attending the Teach For America 25th anniversary summit, meeting other alumni from different years and regions – we are all a part of the movement. Whether we are still in education, in the business sector or at a nonprofit, we have the perspective needed to better serve students, not just with education but with access to health care or financial literacy. The corps member experience goes with us, and so do the stories of our students. It’s what we do with the knowledge to better serve our students, families and communities that make us part of a collective movement.
“The corps member experience goes with us, and so do the stories of our students. It’s what we do with the knowledge to better serve our students, families and communities that make us part of a collective movement.”