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José González (third from left) with Johnny Irizarry, Patty Mendoza, and Maritza Santiago-Torres at the University of Pennsylvania's La Casa Latina.

Hispanic Heritage Month: How My Experience As a DACAmented Educator Helps Me Open Doors with My Students

As an undocumented student who earned an Ivy League degree, José González lets his young scholars know they aren't alone as they embark on their journey toward higher education.
Thursday, October 6, 2016

José González (Los Angeles '14) saw a potentially life-changing opportunity for his student Jasmine*, but she wasn’t immediately on board with it.

On the table was the application for a $2,000 scholarship that would allow her to travel from Los Angeles to the East Coast the spring of her eighth grade year. But instead of approaching it with eager anticipation, she cried.

Jasmine was undocumented and was uncertain if her status would make her vulnerable being 3,000 miles away from home. However, José was undeterred, and extolled the virtues of the trip because he was speaking from experience.

“As an undocumented student growing up in California, I had similar concerns when I had a chance to go to Philadelphia,” he says. “Despite the perceived risks, my mentor alleviated my worries, and I ended up going for it.” Ultimately, Jasmine felt reassured enough to go on the trip—and her teacher could only help but smile and reflect on the impact it could make on her in the future.

José should know. His refusal to live in fear resulted in an extended stay in the City of Brotherly Love, where he earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School.

Today, he’s imparting the same wisdom to his sixth grade math students as a DACAmented Teacher. The decision to enter the classroom wasn’t easy at first.

“I was actually offered a job in finance upon graduation, but I chose to join TFA instead. I don’t regret it at all,” he says. “I’m serving as an example for what my students can do no matter what their status may be.”

After recently being honored by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics, we spoke with José about his journey and how his experiences have shaped the decisions he makes as an educator.

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José didn't waste his opportunity to graduate from Penn's Wharton School.

What were your earliest experiences with education?

It starts with my parents. To this day, my dad says how much he really loved [school]. He said he would’ve been a doctor or an engineer if he didn’t have to leave school at age 12 to do farm work and support his family. That lack of opportunity shaped my parents’ view of education as an opportunity that not everyone has and can take for granted.

It breaks my heart to know that because of income or socioeconomic status, kids like my dad never had the chance to enjoy the experiences I’ve had at 24 years old.

As for me, I was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, and came to the San Joaquin Valley in California when I was young. Coming from Mexico, I didn’t know how to speak English.

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A younger José building the academic foundation that would later send him to Penn.

Eventually you earned an undergraduate business degree from Penn’s Wharton School, which is no small task. How does a kid go from struggling with a language barrier to an Ivy League degree?

A lot of hard work combined with some trying moments. (Laughs) From a young age, my parents warned me not to tell anyone about my status as undocumented for fear of deportation, and as a result, we lived in fear. In high school, I was at the top of my class, leading organizations, doing everything I needed to get into college. But deep down, I knew my options were limited.

When I was a senior in high school, I was one of two students to get into [the University of California] Berkeley and one of four to get into UCLA. However, the in-state tuition at a cost approached $30,000 per year, which my parents could not afford. I wasn’t eligible for a state-issued public grant at the time, either, due to my status.

But even though counselors or other teachers might have been able to help me, I just wasn’t comfortable reaching out to any adult about it. I knew I wasn’t the only undocumented student, but the fear and stigma prevented me from talking about it. So I had to figure out everything on my own, and when I wasn’t getting the right answers, I almost gave up.

I got lucky when the admissions officer at Penn called me. She noticed that I indicated financial need, but didn’t submit any of the paperwork. Out of desperation, I disregarded my parents’ advice and poured my heart out and told her everything. I told her about the struggle and challenges I was facing.

And so, she put me in contact with Johnny Irizarry, the head of La Casa Latina. He really put me under his wing. The next thing you know, my financial aid situation was resolved, and I had an opportunity to go to Penn. I didn’t waste it.

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José with fellow TFA alum Jeanette Vasquez (Los Angeles '14) promoting a DACA workshop for their local school community.

You were on the founding board for Penn for Immigrant Rights, where you held DACA workshops for Philadelphia youth, and later executive director, where you worked with community leaders and business owners to fund an Immigrants’ Rights Scholarship that has already helped multiple college students in need. How did your work carry over to your desire to join Teach For America?

After starting to be comfortable with my status and sharing my story in Philadelphia, I thought about how much easier things might have been if I had known an adult who had gone through it before. Then I thought of people like my mentor Johnny and where I would be if he hadn’t offered his personal kindness and guidance. I decided if I could do that for my students, it was something worthwhile. That's why I became a DACAmented corps member.

You’re entering your third year teaching in Southern California, this time at PUC Community Charter Middle School in Lakeview Terrace. Does some part of you wonder if you should’ve taken the finance job?

I really love what I’m doing. In being vulnerable with [my students], even if they’re not undocumented, if they’re going through anything I can help with, that’s why I’m here. I don’t want my students to feel door after door slammed in their face.

Sometimes we have to be creative to make things happen, but with support networks and having the right people rooting for you, access to these opportunities are possible. But your students have to trust you.

That’s why I’m advocating for them so they have the same opportunities. Much like in Philadelphia, I recently did a DACA workshop for my students and their parents. I led professional development for my fellow teachers on supporting undocumented students in the classroom. We would bust misconceptions like the false idea that undocumented students can’t even legally go to college.

That way, when the subject becomes relevant for teachers, they will have had some exposure because it doesn’t come up organically. We already had examples of that happen at my previous school.

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How does a teacher build that level of trust and empathy?

I think it all stems from having a culture of mutual respect in the classroom. In my first year, I had a bumper sticker on my laptop that said, “No human being is illegal.” Several students asked me about it, and that was the reason why I shared my story with my first group of students. Having discussions on how words can make people feel uncomfortable or marginalize them is important. It’s crucial as someone grows up in this country and this society.

 

*A pseudonym was used to protect the student’s identity.

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