Contributed by Alejandra Flores
During your life you'll encounter different people that will help you give your day to day actions a purpose.
Some of the best people will be those you might not realize until years later. Life will take us through different and interesting paths that will lead us to the person we were meant to be, but while we are still trying to discover ourselves we can appreciate those who left a mark in our youth.
One person I'd like to write about is someone whose profession isn't always the best paid, the most appreciated, or respected. His name is Efrain Gonzalez, a Spanish and History high school teacher in an overpopulated, underfunded school in Chicago for 24 years. Every day is a different story, with a different narrative, and different perspectives, yet Mr. Gonzales, as he's known by his students, finds the motivation to help the Latino youth of this community to thrive and defeat the feelings of oppression, poverty, injustice and in some cases violence surrounding the students' lives. Mr. Gonzalez is the kind of teacher who arrives early and stays late only to provide his students with the adequate tools to reach their full potential.
But why? Why would a teacher with the qualifications to work at any school in the city of Chicago decide to work at a school where students do not want to take part, where parents might not listen, or where faculty is asked to do much for too little? Well, because Mr. Gonzalez is one of those teachers who genuinely cares about the community and has the students' best interest at heart. He understands the struggle that children face every day. He recognizes that his students are capable of achieving so much. His teaching structure is strict and disciplined because he knows his students need guidance, and unfortunately, sometimes his guidance and advice are the closest thing his students have to a structured environment. He understands the students are not lacking interest or being fools; he is aware that too many of these young people have not known a fair system. These young people have been cheated by the lack of opportunities.
Growing up in the south side of Chicago, as a young Latina, I encounter not only the difficulties of growing up but also the problems of being a minority and the limits of possibilities, if any, to succeed. Coming from a low income family, I encounter odds in my life with almost no guidance to succeed. Not being able to get the best education or being financially secure is an issue many people deal with and not many are able to cope with. Many classmates fell victims of growing up poor in Chicago, surrounded by gang activity, substance abuse or the violence all around us.
Being a teenager is complicated, and when living with inequality the disadvantages are much greater. Many young people that live within socio-economic barriers need mentors, but if the only people we can look up don't have the best intentions, then we are left to become a stereotype and can turn into criminals, uneducated or poor.
As young students, we were hungry for opportunities to blossom with our creativity, and the desire to learn and become proficient and demonstrate our place in society, and Efrain Gonzalez was one of the few that believed in us. Efrain lent an ear to hear about our concerns, comments or stories. One of Efrain's proudest moments was helping high school students get into college. He ran a high school program called Latinos Unidos that focused in introducing students to college enrollment and its procedures, as well as exposing students to new cultures and new environments outside of their comfort zone, especifically students of low income and in some cases undocumented. Efrain also has put endless amounts of effort connecting students to Universities, specifically Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago through Proyecto Pa'Lante, a program dedicated to helping those students who may not meet the necessary academic requirements to attend college otherwise. This program works along mainly with Latino and first-generation college students. Through this program, Efrain was able to learn about the students' college concerns and the students simultaneously were given the opportunity to speak with college counselors and learn more about college admissions and get a taste of what it is like to be part of a University. As time has passed, Efrain has been able to see how his dedication has paid off, many of his former students are now teachers, lawyers, and dedicated professionals that thrive to succeed in order to achieve their goals.
Efrain has inspired many of us to follow our dreams. He has always supported our ideals and desires to someday be dedicated, invested and an aware adult, aware of who we are and in what ways we can help our communities become a better place for everyone. Efrain turned his students into critical thinkers, always analyzing the problems, and finding functional solutions. Every class with Mr. Gonzalez not only gave us a new outlook about our academic opportunities, but also it helped us evolve as equals by having the chance to talk about our lives, think out loud and not be afraid of social barriers, because in that classroom we were truly free from prejudice, fear or distress. Efrain was a teacher that clearly left an impact in people's lives, his teachings have made me a grateful person, making me feel fortunate to have had a positive, academic role model for him as a teacher.
Since graduating high school in 2010, I've had the opportunity to encounter different opportunities which had allowed me to grow. Being involved in community development, understanding the social barriers within the city of Chicago which has provided me with the insight Efrain once introduced us to. After 8 years, I'm happy to say I've encountered a teacher who has made a difference within inner city kids. I'm thankful that teachers are still a fundamental part of children's development, especially Mr. Gonzalez, who has guided a generation towards success. Nowadays, Mr. Gonzalez has transitioned from being a Spanish and History teacher to becoming the Dean of Attendance and next year he is expected to take the role of Dean of Students. His dedication and hard work do not go unnoticed, every day he is making sure that students are attending their classes without an excuse, and giving the students the tools for students to succeed.
Teachers, like Mr. Gonzalez, are what make students reach their full potential, and I'd like to thank them for creating a better society every day.
“Admissions.” Northeastern Illinois University, www.neiu.edu/university-life/proyecto-palante.