Letter to the Editor: Paving the way to UI

By Steven Walsh

This month, our country celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s an important occasion every year but one that feels particularly pertinent this year, as the presidential race escalates conversations about immigration and what it means to be American.

As I reflect on this moment in our national dialogue, I can’t help but fixate on those too often left out of it. Today, Latino students do not have the opportunities to excel at the highest level. Our generation has a role to play in changing this.

My own path to the University was an unlikely one. According to the statistics, few kids who look like me or come from where I do make it to our university’s hallowed halls, let alone to graduation day. As the first in my family to don a cap and gown, I ran into barrier after barrier — financial, academic, deeply personal.

Without a guiding light or voice to show me the way, at low moments, I questioned what was possible.

As graduation approached, those moments were at the front of my mind. As I thought about what I wanted to do, I wondered if I might help other kids charting this path for the first time stay on it. I had lived that reality first-hand. Maybe I could be a part of addressing it. I joined Teach For America, moved to Texas and met my students.

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My seventh and eighth graders faced major challenges in their daily lives. I was there. I could certainly relate to their experiences. And as I set about to equip my students with the skills they’d need to make it to a place like the University of Illinois, I treaded softly.

Watching my own friends, I knew that for low-income students of color, a tiny mistake can lead to a massive derailment. So I tried to get involved well beyond the classroom, working with sports teams, afterschool clubs, and any other supportive environment we could come up with.

Along the way, a heavy reality weighed on my mind. With so few Latino men in teaching, I knew there was a chance I might be the only Hispanic male teacher my students would ever have. Knowing this, we chose our subjects of study carefully — from Cesar Chavez to Cesar Romero.

I also shared my own story more honestly than I had ever intended to. I confessed my fears, my missteps, the dark moments and the motivators that saw me through. I loved being the person that my students can look up to as someone that was once in their shoes, and helped demonstrate to them that even though the world can be harsh and unfair, change is possible.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, I hope we’ll think boldly about what it would take to change the realities facing our Latino students. I hope we’ll feel a responsibility to be a part of building a world where race, class and zip code are no longer the determinants of access to opportunity.

More than anything, I hope we’ll recognize the opportunities that the University opened for us and commit to paying them forward — as teachers, mentors, activists, and believers in what’s possible. Our students won’t let us down.

Steven Walsh, 2011 graduate.