Investing in the Future

Photo by Brandon Parigo, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

School of Education donors and scholars break bread, pursue dreams

Alicia Rodriguez arrived in the U.S. as an elementary school student who didn’t speak a word of English. Next May, she will become the first person in her family to graduate from college.

Yahna Gibson was raised in thrift store clothes, moving frequently from one temporary urban home to another. She chose to reframe her thinking, became a not-for-profit CEO, and then walked away from that career to become an elementary school teacher. Now she is on the verge of a master’s degree in counseling.

What they share in common: Scholarships made their stories of hope and triumph possible. On Tuesday, scholarship donors and recipients from the School of Education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City gathered to break bread together and share such stories of dreams pursued, and dreams realized.

Gibson told the luncheon audience that she married young, had children and concentrated on raising her family. Divorce pushed her to complete her education. In the process, “I realized that helping people was my calling.”

Her first route in that direction was not-for-profit management, and she rose to become executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Kansas City. She knew she was making a difference, but still felt called to choose a different path. She took a significant salary cut to become a classroom teacher.

People told her she was crazy. Her take:

“Teachers are amazing. Their time commitment, their ability to multitask, to develop new curriculums, differentiate instruction, work on anti-bullying week, teach character and love students,” she said.

Now, as she prepares to move from teaching to counseling, “more than anything, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that my children and grandchildren will recognize what I am teaching and imparting to them: that they will be kind, considerate and loving people, and that they have an obligation to make this world a better place.”

Rodriguez told the audience that her first role model in life was her first American teacher.

“I only spoke Spanish, and all the course material that was given to me was in English. Luckily, Mrs. Zamora, my fifth-grade teacher, was a Mexican-American who fluently spoke Spanish. She would stay an extra hour with me two or three times a week to help me learn English and assist in any way possible for me to not stay behind,” Rodriguez said. “Mrs. Zamora was indeed my first motivation on becoming an educator, as she became a role model and support system for me during one of the most important chapters of my life.”

That was in California. When the family moved to Kansas City, the teachers did not speak Spanish, but their level of dedication was no different.

“They went above and beyond what was expected of them, and by the end of my seventh-grade year I was fluent in English and had caught up with most of my classmates,” she recalled.  “I still remember the day the kitchen of the house we used to live in caught on fire and my teachers helped us by giving us a stove and monetary donations. Also, that same year the teachers raised money to give my siblings and I Christmas presents. We were blessed to have met such amazing human beings and I want to repay them by doing the same with my future students.”

Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, UMKC interim chancellor and provost, offered her thanks to the scholarship donors.

“At UMKC, college affordability is a priority, and the scholarship opportunities you help provide play an integral role in making that possible. You are providing an opportunity for more scholars to pursue higher education,” Bichelmeyer said. “Donor support makes it possible for the School of Education to recruit, prepare, and support outstanding teachers, mental health professionals, and administrators. You are helping to resolve not only America’s, but Kansas City’s, need for more educators committed to serving our urban communities.”

Justin Perry, dean of the School of Education, acknowledged the hard work and dedication of the scholarship students.

“Scholars, each of you should be proud of your academic achievements, the goals you have set, and your staunch support of a socially just world where educational opportunities are rife regardless of the ZIP code students call home, whether they speak English as a second language or come from a family that lives paycheck to paycheck,” Perry said. “All of you are the future of education, as educators, counselors and administrators leading and encouraging the next generation of students.”

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