College of Ed grad paying it forward at hometown school

On the first few days of class, Adriana Alvarez stands in front of her sixth- to eighth-grade English as a Second Language class and asks them to try an exercise with her.

She tells the students, many of whom have recently immigrated to the United States, that she wants to understand who they are. Alvarez wants to know what their pronouns are. What is the name they like to be called? What is the correct way to pronounce their name?

Alvarez uses herself as an example first. After introducing her name, she tells them that she is Mexican. She is a short person. She is a person with brown skin and brown eyes. She tells them that she is a person who loves to talk and dance. And she tells her students that she is someone who will be there for them.

Alvarez is a spring 2022 graduate of the UO College of Education’s Curriculum and Teacher Education master’s program and now teaches English classes in the Bethel School District, the same district she attended in high school. The support and encouragement she found from UO faculty members, Alvarez said, were essential for her academic success and her ability to share her background as a means of connecting with students.

“I had a few teachers growing up who made me love school, who made me love the classroom, and who made me feel safe,” she said. “And then going into UO Teach, I saw this message more: Be who you are.”

Alvarez always dreamed of going to the UO. She remembers touring campus for the first time in a state of amazement. At 16 years old, Alvarez turned to her teacher on the tour and said, “One day, I will come here. One day, I’m going to graduate from UO.” Her teacher responded with encouragement; she said Alvarez could do it.

“That stayed with me,” Alvarez said. “I had to go to UO. For me, it was the best school I could ever go to. It was my dream school. And I felt like if I didn’t go, I would regret it my whole life.”

This dream kept her focused when Alvarez lacked confidence in herself and her academic future. Her family didn’t talk much about college when she was growing up because her parents hadn’t gone.

“It was never assumed that I was going to go to college, have a career and be independent,” Alvarez said. “So from when I was 17 years old and on, once I graduated high school, I was breaking all of these barriers and stereotypes.”

It also was difficult to afford a high level of education. After a few years working in the service industry, Alvarez got a job as a teaching assistant in the Bethel School District, where she helped translate for Spanish-speaking families and students. She fell in love with the classroom immediately and realized that she wanted to become a teacher herself.

The support she received from a mentor helped bring her goal within reach. Alvarez met Tina Gutierez-Schmich, who works for the Bethel School District and is currently adjunct faculty member at the UO College of Education, through her teaching assistant position. Gutierez-Schmich helped Alvarez find the Pathways in Education Scholarship, which supports diverse educators in getting their teaching license with the support of the school district where they are employed.

Gutierez-Schmich said that the Pathway Scholarship is important because it helps minimize barriers to going back to school. Those barriers are particularly noticeable for people of color and for individuals who have to work while attending school.

“Adriana worked full time while finishing her two-year degree from Lane Community College, completing her teaching license through Bushnell University, and then completing her master's degree from UOTeach,” Gutierez-Schmich said. “That is a tremendous commitment and speaks to Adriana's passion for learning and teaching.”

Alvarez was an excellent candidate for scholarships because she knew early on that she wanted to return and teach in the same school district she graduated from years before. That reflected a goal of the College of Education and partner schools to support teachers who return and teach in their own communities.

She also completed the English for Speakers of Other Languages endorsement at the College of Education, a program that allows licensed teachers to qualify for an Oregon endorsement in the field.

But finishing her education wasn’t easy. Alvarez said that sometimes her scholarships wouldn’t go through on time, or she would have to retake tests with expensive entrance fees. In those moments, she questioned if she would ever overcome the financial and emotional toll of college long enough to graduate.

Professors and mentors at the College of Education stepped in to help offset her burdens, granting extensions on assignments when she needed more time and providing textbooks through free PDFs so she didn’t have to pay for extra class materials.

Gutierez-Schmich supported Alvarez by opening up about her own educational struggles. The two share similar backgrounds, since they both identify as Latinx, were the first people in their families to go to college and worked full time while going to school.

“Those times when I was in pieces, when I was crying and wanting to give up,” Alvarez said, “that’s when Tina would tell me how long it took her to get her bachelor’s degree. She would share her story at a time when I needed to hear motivational words. It helped me calm down.”

Alvarez said that Gutierez-Schmich’s openness changed how she approached teaching in her own classroom.

“She helped me a lot,” Alvarez said. “Her being one of these people who I've had in my journey, it helped me be who I am as a teacher. Because I also share my story with my students. I connect with them that way.”

Gutierez-Schmich said that it’s important for students to have someone who will listen and who understands what they have experienced. And she sees Alvarez doing the same thing in her own teaching, because Alvarez and her students share similar identities.

“Adriana will support many young people who need to see a bit of themselves in their teacher, Gutierez-Schmich said, “and what a profound difference that can make in their ability to thrive in school.”

By Madeline Ryan, College of Education