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My Mother’s Legacy in Education

The light is turned on and I feel the brightness despite my eyes being closed. “Get up! It’s 6 a.m.!” my mom yells. This meant it was 5:30 a.m.  and my mother was doing her daily routine of trying to make my brother and me think we are running late for school.

In about five minutes, she re-enters the room and takes the blankets away and tells us, “It’s almost 7 a.m.!” I finally wake up, walk to the bathroom haphazardly and take a shower to get ready for school.

Parental education background is often asked in college and graduate school applications. It serves as a proxy to understand the educational background of the applicant. Is the student first-generation? Is the student’s family educated? However, it doesn’t allow for further context of parental background to be considered. I wasn’t embarrassed to check that she had only a high school education, but it did make me think about what that meant.

I attribute my career in education to my mother, a preschool teacher’s aide at a small Catholic elementary school in the Bronx. After graduating high school, she spent the rest of her life doing everything she could to support her two children.

Relentless in making sure my brother and I went to Catholic, private school, my mother worked multiple jobs in the school to make that happen. She worked the breakfast program at 6:30 a.m., was a teacher’s aide from 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and then worked the after-school program until 6 p.m. Because of her schedule, I practically lived in the school, and the teachers and administrators were like extended family to me.

Education was more than a pathway to success for me – it became my calling. It just took a while for me to accept it.

My mother was the aide when I was in pre-K. I was not allowed to get in trouble because I did not want to get embarrassed around my friends with my mom yelling at me in school. I remember dreading showing her my homework because I was sloppy, and she would make me re-do it if it wasn’t up to her standards. Eventually, I think she accepted that my penmanship wasn’t going to get much better. All throughout elementary school, I avoided conflict and getting into (too much) trouble, because my mom was always there.

I share this background because it wasn’t until high school, the first time I was at school without my mother, that I began reflecting on the organizational culture and relationships teachers had with their students. I went to an all-boys Catholic high school in the Bronx, and although I did really well, I always felt that I wasn’t being challenged enough. I was able to do my homework last minute or on the bus. I rarely studied. I also grew frustrated with the amount of time wasted on disciplinary and behavior issues in the classroom with a lot of my peers. It wasn’t until I met my guidance counselor in my junior year that I felt the same type of care and commitment as I did with my mother and other teachers in elementary school.

I considered being a guidance counselor when I began college. I appreciated what mine did for me so much that I felt compelled to do the same. However, I quickly learned that I was not prepared for college and felt that if I couldn’t succeed in college, how could I help students get to college?

The environment in college also dissuaded me from being a guidance counselor. Although struggling with the rigor of coursework, it was nice to finally be in a classroom where students were not blatantly disrespectful to the teachers or constantly trying to copy my homework and tests, like in high school. I realized I might not have the patience to be in a setting like that again.

As a first-generation student in college, I struggled to share my experiences with my mother because I wasn’t performing as well as I did before, and I did not know how to explain well what I was studying in class and experiencing on campus. Trying to avoid making her worry, I rarely shared when I was stressed with class or when I felt like I did not belong there.

Despite my façade, she remained my rock throughout college, reminding me how hard it was for me to be far from home but how proud she was of me.

By my junior year of college, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in higher education. I merged my appreciation for my guidance counselor and my experience and struggle of making the transition to college to a career in helping students like me in college. I was able to work at my alma mater for three years, advising students like me and assisting the university with its diversity initiatives. Now, I am actively pursuing research on low-income, first-generation students and hope to better their experiences in academia through my research and mentorship.

This is all because of my mother. So when I am asked about my mom’s educational background, I am no longer questioning what it means that she only went to high school. I am proud of all that she was able to accomplish. She made sure that education was at the forefront of my childhood. Not only by choice, but by circumstance. Her commitment for us to get the best education she could provide, even if we were at school more than we were at home, is what got me here.

She modeled forms of capital that I learned about in graduate school: aspirational, navigational and resistance capital. She made sure we knew that we could become whatever we wanted to be if we pursued education. I learned to ask questions and form relationships with teachers and administrators because she made those connections for me as a child. I knew that I could never give up because she never gave up on us.

Thank you, mom. I am because you are.

Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. His column appears in Diverse every other week. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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