TFA Alum Alex Barraza Promotes Economic Mobility For Students in the Valley
Alexandra (Alex) Barraza arrived in Washington’s Lower Valley in 2016 to begin her two years of Teach for America service and soon realized the rural, heavily agricultural community felt like home.
Alex grew up in El Paso, Texas, so there weren’t superficial similarities between the two places. But the close-knit, mostly Hispanic community, with strong family values, and the close-knit group of teachers with whom she works has kept her there for the past seven years.
“I plan on staying here for a while,” Alex said. She teaches math at Sunnyside High School, where she did her TFA corps service from 2016-18, and feels that her background helps her connect on a deep level with her students. She loves her colleagues, feels supported and inspired by the administrative team, and likes the rural way of life.
“...When I tell students that I’m not from the Valley they ask why I’m still here. They are very surprised when I tell them that I really do like it and that I feel like Sunnyside has become my home.”
Alex joined TFA immediately after graduating in three years from the University of Texas El Paso with a teaching certification. She credits her brother with pushing her to pursue higher education.
She felt connected to the community almost immediately. Many other corps members leave the Valley as soon as their two-year stint is up, and Alex understands why, even though her experience has been very different.
“I grew up in a heavily Hispanic and Latino population, and even though I grew up in the city, I feel like that gave me a more grounded approach to teaching here in the Valley,” she said. “I think for other people who aren’t from here and get placed in the Valley, it’s a big adjustment. It’s really different from other areas.”
Alex has also taken on an informal leadership role among the math teachers, helping write curriculum, inviting other teachers to observe her classes, and “helping out on a teacher-by-teacher basis with whatever they need.”
Her background and upbringing has helped Alex relate well to her students, and to connect with them on a human as well as professional level. “Sometimes I say let’s forget about the math for today,” she said. “I want to teach them how to communicate, how to work together, and how to problem-solve.”
In the wake of the pandemic, Alex has worked to re instill good habits, after many students spent extended periods of time “doing class from in their beds.”
Journaling, breathing exercises, and mindfulness training have helped ground the students and get them reacclimated to school, she said.
Over time, Alex has found that promoting economic mobility in the Valley means more than pushing all students to go to college, especially because most people who grow up there want to stay into adulthood.
It took Alex a while to come to this realization, in part because her own college experience was so overwhelmingly positive.
“...A lot of the jobs in this community are focused around the trades and agriculture in general. That’s not just working on the fields. There are a lot of other opportunities in marketing and business connected to agriculture as well.”
While always encouraging students with different aspirations to pursue their dreams, Alex said, she and the rest of the Sunnyside staff have come to realize that talking about pursuing careers that would require a move away from the Valley caused them to “lose a lot of students.”
“Now when we’re having those conversations we point out that you can make a good living here being an electrician, a plumber,” she said. “You can work in business and still support people in the valley and stay here.”