On May 13, I walked across a stage full of confidence, joy and accomplishment and received my masters degree in TESOL(Teaching English to speakers of other languages) while my two sons jumped up and down with excitement cheering their mama on! If you saw me that day, you would have never known the stories and the moments that went into making that day possible for me. On my graduation day, I felt the pride and success that I absolutely should have felt. However, I also needed to reflect and appreciate the struggles and challenges that brought me to that long awaited moment.
15 years ago, I graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in communication studies and Spanish, not knowing what was next for me. Through a series of God ordained events, I ended up in Mexico living as a missionary and teaching English. The passion for teaching English to speakers of other languages quickly kindled in me and it took me on the best ride. I moved to Houston and found myself teaching ESL in refugee resettlement agencies, literacy councils, a private institute and even starting a couple programs from scratch in my neighborhood and local church.
In 2012, I was living in a refugee community and leading a resource center and a ESL program on site. The classes were full of beautiful people from around the world who had stories of tragedy, escaping atrocious violence and persecution. Many were women with young children trying to start their lives over and provide opportunities for their next generations to thrive, despite all the challenges they faced. Even though I was a teacher, I learned so much about resilience and strength in the face of tragedy from these dear women. That helped carry me when I was brutally attacked in that same ESL classroom and nearly escaped with my life. It was a miracle that I survived. Despite that trauma changing so much in my life, it never changed my love and passion for immigrants, refugees and ESL education. It only amplified it more as I was given a glimpse of what its like to overcome adversity and keep going, just as my friends and students did everyday.
My kids were both born in Houston and I was thrilled that they would know the diversity that I didn’t at such a young age. Working as a part time ESL teacher, doing church ministry and raising my kids was truly an ideal scenario for my life and I was so grateful. Then at the end of 2016, my world turned upside down and every plan I had for our future was shattered (or so I thought). I found myself as a single mom of two small children, back in my rural hometown of Illinois, without much hope of a future for us at all. However, within 2 weeks of that trauma, I had secured a position at the community college teaching ESL at nights. Teaching those evening ESL classes were some of the brightest moments in the darkest of days. I would spend all day alone with my kids grieving our loss, sometimes feeling like I couldn’t function or go on, and then I would walk into a classroom and it was like flipping a switch. I could put all the sadness away and pour myself into my students and teaching. Those students in those days had no idea the darkness that was plaguing my life, but they were a light that gave me purpose to keep going.
As my boys grew and got older, I knew I needed to find myself a way to properly provide for them with more than a part time teaching role. Despite all my experience teaching ESL I had never studied education and desired to go back to school. I wrote in my journal many times how much I wanted to get my masters degree, but it just didn’t seem possible as a single mom in this stage of life to do so. Yet, with Covid-19 I started to realize the value of online education, especially for people like me. After hours of agonizing over decisions and calling schools, I finally chose an online program at a school in Arizona that told me that I was the perfect fit for their program! I started in January 2021 with so much excitement. I went through two classes and quickly realized that no one in this program had any experience with Adult ESL and everything was geared towards K-12. The teachers didn’t know what to do with me and I was the only person in my actual field in this program. I was frustrated and completely shocked when they told me that I couldn’t use my Adult ESL hours as an internship and I needed to be in a K-12 ESL classroom. I felt gullible to believe enrollment advisors and had been deceived into something that wasn’t right for me at all. I felt like a failure for not inquiring more beforehand and had no idea what I was going to do. One morning, I broke down in tears with a group of friends at a local diner over our pancakes feeling so defeated and lost, yet I felt so supported and loved on as well. They helped give me the courage to pursue something else, despite losing a good amount of money and having to start fresh again.
So after some more searching and help from a colleague of mine, I restarted grad school in the fall of 2021 at Hamline University, a school that I found to be full of professors who absolutely understood me and my passions for adult ESL and had all the expertise to back it up! That setback of mine turned out to be a life lesson of not giving up at the first sign of failure and not to accept defeat. I decided to keep pursuing and try again, when it wasn’t the easiest decision. Oh the pride I had to swallow not to allow the embarrassment of making the wrong decision to overtake me!
The last two years of graduate school have been the busiest years of my life. I wrote and read thousands of pages, I studied countless hours at all times of the day and nights, hung out in so many booths at the local Panera trying to focus, and squeezed in Zoom meetings with my teachers and classmates between all my other life commitments. Through that, I taught several ESL classes, tutored a student from China at a ridiculously early hour in the morning every Friday, took on a second part time position at the college, coached kids baseball and basketball, led an international student ministry and women’s ministry, taught kids Sunday school, volunteered at my kids school, met with college students, attempted dating, poured into my friendships, took multiple trips and vacations, all while single parenting. Just in case someone mistakes me as superwoman, to keep it real, I also yelled at my boys more than I care to admit, forgot a lot of important appointments, left a lot of texts and emails unread, got overwhelmed and anxious, had a few panic attacks, procrastinated on projects, had to cancel on friends, and overall struggled managing a good life balance between all the things!
It has been quite the journey to be able to accomplish this goal of a masters degree. The phrase “it takes a village” has been my mantra. Multiple times, I had family and friends show up to take my kids for an afternoon or evening so I could finish an assignment or get some reading done. My parents did so much these past two years to make this possible. Even my own students often encouraged me and even helped me with homework at times!
As I walked across that stage in St. Paul Minnesota a couple weeks ago, I could feel the presence of God with me. Right before they called my name, I looked out into the crowd and saw my parents, a good friend (an international student), and my two boys cheering me on. It was as if I could hear a voice within me say with clear confidence ” You were left alone and abandoned 6 and half years ago, and you thought you had no future. You thought you couldn’t live or make anything of yourself without your husband. Look at where you are now. You did it. Be proud of yourself and be grateful”. I am so very grateful that girl in 2012 or 2016 didn’t throw in the towel and that God made a way for me to move forward and overcome challenges despite adversity.
In order to graduate I completed a Capstone Project. This is my dedication that came at the beginning: To all my ESL students throughout the years for inspiring me with their stories of bravery, triumph and success as they overcome significant challenges. I have learned far more from you than I have ever taught you. To my boys, Judah and Lucas who inspire me to be brave, kind, wise and constantly curious everyday. To my parents, who without your support, I wouldn’t have come close to finishing this project. Thanks for always being there for me.