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My students, our future

| Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Illegals. Rapists. Drug traffickers.

These are just a few of the terms that have been used in recent months to describe people who look like me, who share my heritage, language, name and customs. They’ve been heard in the blogosphere, on talk radio shows and even from presidential hopefuls on the national stage. They have fueled a sometimes nasty, often inaccurate debate about immigration in the United States, which has furthered misconceptions and done little to educate the American public. Yet along the way, amidst all the pain and vitriol, a huge opportunity has arisen, one on which our generation must take the lead.

The current dialogue about immigration has put Latinos in the United States at the forefront of national discussion. Now, we must use it as a chance to foster productive dialogue, educate the public and empower Latino communities.

As a teacher, I get to do this from a unique vantage point. Any given day, I see both what students are capable of when they get the support they need, as well as the battles their families have to wage in order to access them. The good news? As a Latina myself, I have the privilege of proving to my students that someone who looks like them, speaks their languages and shares their culture can succeed. This informs my work in the classroom as well as the role I play as advocate, meeting regularly with parents and school officials to figure out how to better accommodate each student’s needs.

Don’t get me wrong — the daily work is hard, but the rewards are well worth it. Each time my students light up after solving a tough problem or comprehending a complicated sentence, I’m reminded that we’re taking concrete action to change something much bigger than us. Our country’s demographic moving towards a minority majority, so unless we address these gaps we will soon be living in a world where the majority of students are behind.

Today, Latinos lag behind their white counterparts in academic achievement — graduating high school, reading, writing and performing in math at lower rates. This has nothing to do with ability or will and everything to do with systemic gaps in educational opportunity according to race, class and zip code.

When I first came to Notre Dame, I didn’t think I’d become a teacher. This all changed one afternoon sitting in front of the subway in LaFun chatting with fellow Notre Dame alum and Teach For America corps member, Diego Lopez. As Diego shared stories from his classroom, I started to imagine leading my own — a place where kids like me would acquire agency and power and hear a different narrative about what was possible.

Every day, I’m incensed by the national conversation and inspired to be part of a different one. The vitriol today reflects misperceptions and stereotypes I’ve heard my whole life about my community and high school in East Chicago. It doesn’t reflect reality. In my own life, people made the difference — people like my mom, a founding member of HOPE (Hispanic Organization of Parents of Exceptional Children), my dance instructor who pushed and encouraged me, a friend who went on be the first person from our high school to graduate from Harvard.

Now, I want to do for others what they did for me. As a teacher, every child that I have the opportunity to teach within and outside of the classroom will be encouraged to choose their own future and to help our country chart a much better one.

When stereotypes and insults fly, it’s easy to get angry. It’s easy to fall victim to doubts that anything will ever change. But it’s imperative that we act — to use our education and our experiences to become leaders and shape the stories ourselves. We can help the kids that will come of age in the next decades to fulfill their potential and lead the way to a world in which the majority of our kids are thriving.

Resilient. Strong. Smart. Those are the words that describe my kids, my family and my community. It’s time for our country to know it.

Diana Gutierrez is a 2015 alumna of the University of Notre Dame and a Teach For America corps member in Indianapolis.

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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