Veronica Hernandez-Lucena is a 2005 UW-Milwaukee alumna. She currently works as on the Latino Engagement and Partnerships team at Teach For America, focusing on increasing the number of Latinos in the classroom.
This Hispanic Heritage Month, I’m thinking a lot about my former students. While they’re never too far from my mind – I keep in touch with many of the middle and high schoolers I taught in Los Angeles between 2006 and 2010 – this time of year gives me the chance to reflect on my years in the classroom and all the challenges, exhilaration, and growth they brought.
By 2040, nearly one out of every four US citizens will identify as Hispanic. But as we see Latino leadership rising across the country, there’s one leadership shortage that hits home for me. Today, just eight percent of teachers identify as Latino. This gap has real, immediate implications for Latino students.
While sharing a common identity with your students is not necessary to be an impactful teacher, it is certainly a powerful addition. Growing up in the Southside of Milwaukee, where there is a large population of Latinos, I was shocked when I thought back to the number of Latino teachers I had throughout my life: one. It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I was able to see an image of myself reflected in a teacher.
While attending UWM, I started working with the Boys & Girls Club after-school program at an elementary school on the Southside. I wanted to be a role model for young students and make an impact in my community. I soon realized that the education they received was not like that of their peers in public schools in more affluent parts of the city. My kids didn’t have nearly as many opportunities or resources as the kids in some of our neighboring communities.
In my last semester at UWM, I learned about Teach For America – an organization devoted to closing the opportunity gap in this country. The mission spoke deeply to me. My passion for students and for my community has been a strong factor in my decision to commit to education, but it’s not the whole story. The other element is highly practical. Today, kids who share my racial and economic backgrounds are dramatically less likely to graduate from high school, go to college, or earn a degree than their wealthier peers. This of course directly impacts their individual life prospects, but it also has grave implications for the future of this country. Unless we do something today, our citizens of tomorrow won’t be prepared to lead. As the rising generation of leaders, we can make a choice to take action and change this.
In the classroom, my identity as a Latina teacher shaped my every interaction. Every day during breaks and after-school, students were in my classroom, asking questions and wanting to learn more about my background: “You went to college? Why? Your parents let you move far away?” I could see their mindsets and curiosity grow. But it was not until I read a powerful assignment by my student Brenda that I understood my greater impact. In an end of year assignment, the students had to write an essay about their role model, and Brenda’s essay was about me. She wrote that through my sharing of my summer travels, advice, college experiences, and openness with my students, she now has new goals in her life and wants to go to college and see more of the world.
Bringing my full self to the classroom—as a Latina, UWM grad, and first-generation college student—I had the privilege of being both a window and a mirror for my students. They saw themselves in me and thought, “If Ms. Hernandez could do it, maybe I can too.” That’s the power of more Latinos in the classroom. It is a chance to create positive change in our communities and re-shape the narrative of Latinos in education.
As a Teach For America corps member, I know that I’m part of a growing network of over 3,000 Latino leaders, answering the call to fight for social justice in the classroom. This year, 13 percent of Teach For
America’s incoming corps identify as Hispanic and one-third are the first in their family to attend college. As the organization continues to host national Latino Leadership Summits from LA to Colorado to New York City, I’m proud to be part of this group and prouder still to be working with TFA to increase the number of Latinos in the classroom.
The path towards meaningful change has been taken by regular people committed to making extraordinary things possible. Great teachers come from all backgrounds, identities, and experiences, but we are united by this difficult and deeply inspiring work. As a TFA alumni committed to a lifetime of advocating for low-income students and families, I am challenged to play a role in the future I imagine and humbled to have worked with students whose imaginations never ceased to amaze. As you imagine your own future, I hope you’ll join us.