As a sixth-grader, I stood near my new school’s entrance, trying to find solace in a corner. It was my first day attending school in the United States—one of the most terrifying days of my life.
You’d think that having attended a middle school near the U.S.-Mexico border would have made things easier, but it didn’t. I was a brand-new student who didn’t know how to properly pronounce a word of English. Even my clothing made me a target for bullies.
As if that were not enough,at least one of my teachers believed that I was destined for failure based on my circumstances. I was told in front of my parents that I would never learn English and I would never graduate from high school.
I was born and raised in Mexico and though I became a resident when I was in second grade, four years later my family was mandated to move to the U.S. or else lose our residency. We were not financially ready to make the transition, and we had yet to learn English.
The language barrier segregated me from the rest of the students. Soon, I realized that not being in regular classes would limit my choices—not only for high school but college as well. It was then that I decided to exit the newcomers program that was holding me back, and I heard the words that would mark me for life: I was told I would be a failure.
Being Told I’d Be a Failure Gave Me the Ganas to Succeed
In order to attend the high school of my choice, I was provided conditional acceptance pending state exam scores, which I was expected to master after only one full school year of learning English. Fortunately, I was able to overcome this obstacle through determination and the moral support of my parents. Once in high school, my experiences were nontraditional. I had lived in the U.S. for only two years and we were experiencing financial hardships.
Senior year, after figuring out how to apply for college and scholarships with little to no support, I saw the university of my dreams slip through my fingers because I couldn't afford it. But I kept going.
I went on to complete my bachelor’s degree in biology at a local university in three years and I was able to get my loan forgiven because I met the on-time graduation requirement and GPA. While in college, I established a Future Health Professionals (HOSA) chapter and became the first female to be elected the president of the SGA Senate.
I was hesitant to start my master's program because I knew the level of writing required was rigorous. I was still afraid to fail. With the support of my family, I was able to graduate with honors in two years with a master's in science education.
There was only one more thing to do to leave behind the harsh words I heard throughout my education: earn a doctoral degree. In the Fall of 2018, I successfully defended my dissertation, which focused on ethnic and gender differences in self-efficacy and their relationship to college-going. I graduated with honors.
Though I Never Had a Role Model, I Am One for My Students
Throughout my educational career, I never had a role model who looked like me. If you are reading this and you are a minority, believe me, you can overcome challenges no matter how difficult they might seem at the time. Because now I'm a member of another minority—the 2% of the U.S. population that holds a doctoral degree.
Unfortunately, many of the students I’ve encountered over the course of 13 years in education have heard the exact same words from different people in their lives: You’ll never learn English. You will never graduate from high school. You are destined for failure. But I proved them wrong. Today, as a Northridge High School science teacher, I’m dedicated to helping my students prove those naysayers wrong, too. Teaching feeds my passion to help students reach their highest potential.
Yajaira Fuentes-Tauber has been a high school science educator for 13 years. Currently she teaches AP environmental science, environmental science, and anatomy and physiology at Northridge High School in Colorado.
Yajaira is the AP instructional lead and has served as the National Honor Society adviser and as a part of multiple school ...