Excelling Against the Odds in the ESL System

05/01/2014 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2014

I grew up in the 1980s amidst civil war in El Salvador. The violence in my native state was so bad that my mother decided to move to the United States and separate the family to protect us. Since I was the youngest, I stayed behind in a safer part of the country with my grandmother and aunt, apart from my parents and siblings.

While no one in my family had earned a college degree, my grandmother always told me that education was the way out of poverty and hardship. As I watched my older cousins struggle to earn a college degree, I was convinced that if they were willing to pay for books over food, it was worth sacrificing for education.

When I was 14, I found out my mother had become a U.S. citizen and would be able to bring me to the United States.Immediately, I started dreaming. I thought my path to a college education would be easier compared to my cousins in El Salvador. I thought I could learn English in six months. I thought I could excel academically as I had done back home.

When I arrived atahigh school in Northern California, I was one of eight newcomer girls in my English as a Second Language (ESL) class. I quickly learned it would be difficult to obtain my dreams and for many immigrants, those dreams were unreachable. I learned that the system wasn't set up for us to succeed.

I will never forget asking a high school counselor about the University of California admission requirements. He was quick to give me information about the local community college. When I clarified that I wanted information about four-year colleges, he said, "Si te crees tan chingona" ("If you think you are all that"). I laughed. I thought he was joking!

In addition to the low expectations in school, the political and social climate in California at that time resulted in Latinos being treated as second-class citizens. This is why only two of us newcomer girls in the ESL class graduated and I was the only one who went to college.

Given my experience in high school, I decided to dedicate my studies and career to addressing the issues that made my friends drop out of high school. As I worked on my bachelor's degree at California State University, Bakersfield and master's degree and Ph.D. at Oregon University, I looked for factors that contributed to the problems I encountered and interventions that could better support students like my friends. That work has continued since I arrived in 2008 as an assistant professor at UC Riverside's Graduate School of Education.

I study resiliency because I would have liked to give my six friends who did not graduate high school a chance to graduate and go to college. In conversations in the cafeteria, we talked about attending college and careers. Some of us wanted to be lawyers, others thought about becoming teachers or successful entrepreneurs.

Those girls were like me. They had good grades before coming to the United States. They came from caring families who supervised their every step and expected them to do well in school. They got mad when we were exposed to a dumbed down curriculum and were never informed of the difference between a four-year university and a community college.

The only thing that separated me was my decision not to conform to the system set up for me. I didn't know any better than to get A's, hoping that good universities would see I was good student. I was oblivious that by their standards I should have been taking more advanced courses.

In graduate school, I learned the situation I encountered in high school is very common. Studies have shown that up to 80 percent of Latinos who come to United States as middle or high school students not knowing English don't graduate high school.

I also learned about the importance of students' academic and social-emotional wellbeing. I decided to design a program that I now call project FUERSAS, which stands for Facilitating Universal Resiliency for the Social and Academic Success of Latino ELLs and families. In Spanish, fuerzas means strength. FUERSAS teaches students and their parents basic social-emotional learning skills such as self-awareness, social awareness, problem solving, anger management and positive thinking.

To date, we have conducted three studies that have shown that the youth program of FUERSAS helps students socially, emotionally and academically. But, that is not enough. We are now focused on parents. The work will never end. We need multiple interventions to undo the negative impact of multiple barriers. Immigrant children have big dreams and we can all help them achieve those dreams.