VIDEO: Virtual forum stresses importance of building relationships with Latino and Hispanic-identified students

“My teachers told my mom that my English was unsatisfactory and blamed Spanish as the biggest impediment.”

Dr. Itzel Meduri Soto, associate professor Spanish, Biola University

These were some of the words Dr. Itzel Meduri Soto, an associate professor of Spanish in the modern languages department at Biola University, shared during the 2022 Hispanic Heritage Month virtual forum on Sept. 19. 

As the latest in OCDE’s series of online colloquiums hosted by County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares to reflect the theme “Know My Name, Face and Story,” the forum brought together a panel of distinguished speakers who spoke from their memories of personal stories and perspectives on building student agency.

“Here in Orange County, nearly half of our K-12 students and more than a third of all residents identify as Hispanic or Latino,” Dr. Mijares said. “The contributions of these communities are essential to our region’s culture, academic institutions and economy. In a diverse society like ours, our experiences, values and destinies are shared, and that’s why it is so important that our families, educational systems and employers band together with purpose to ensure that today’s youth are equipped to be tomorrow’s leaders.”

Dr. Soto was among five panelists. She grew up in Wilmington, a neighborhood in the Harbor region of Los Angeles where the neighborhoods have a high concentration of immigrant households and Latino residents. Spanish was the first language the associate professor learned and was the only language she spoke until she was enrolled in elementary school. 

Her family believed in maintaining their language and rich culture. At school, she struggled with speaking and reading in English. While her parents believed that speaking Spanish would only help her, Dr. Soto said her teachers thought otherwise. 

“For many years, I dreaded the first day of school because all of my teachers would butcher my name,” Dr. Soto said. “My parents gave me my name. It’s important to me as it honors my Mayan heritage.” 

With support from her family and teachers who pushed her to succeed, Dr. Soto graduated from high school, continued her education at Los Angeles Harbor College and moved on to California State University, Dominguez Hills and University of California, Irvine. Now as an associate professor, she feels a deep sense of responsibility to support students from under-resourced communities. 

“When we invite students to bring in their whole selves and we’re not asking them to leave certain parts of themselves out, students just learn better,” Dr. Soto said. 

She was joined by other speakers including Dr. Adriana Villavicencio from University of California, Irvine, California Collaborative for Educational Excellence Executive Director Matt Navo, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Gaddi Vasquez and Pastor Jack Miranda from the Jesse Miranda Center for Hispanic Leadership. 

Sharing similar beliefs

While their stories were different, the panelists did share similar beliefs, such as the need to create a diverse population of Hispanic or Latino-identified educators, leaders and role models in classrooms and higher education, as well as the importance of building authentic relationships with all students. 

The other panelists also spoke about the teachers that they still hold dear to their hearts and the people who made differences in their education. Pastor Miranda recalled his seventh-grade teacher who complimented his voice and suggested he look into pursuing a career in radio. 

“I ended up pursuing broadcast journalism for 15 years,” Miranda said. “That meant everything to me. Your words have the potential to create a deep profound impact on a person’s life.” 

For panelist Matt Navo, who leads a team of educational professionals that is working to deliver on California’s promise of a quality and equitable education for all students, it was several people, including an elementary school librarian, who noticed that he struggled to read and decided to populate books to boost his literacy over time. 

“She created a mindset for me that changed my way of thinking about education,” Navo said. “In turn, my trajectory changed. The way I valued education and myself changed.” 

Cesar E. Chavez Service Awards

The virtual forum concluded with Dr. Mijares honoring Ronald Simon from the Simon Family Foundation and former Orange County Board of Education trustee Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez with the inaugural Cesar E. Chavez Service Awards. 

Simon and his children formed a family foundation and established the program in 2002. A child of immigrants, he had achieved the American dream through hard work by building a successful manufacturing company. Through his foundation, Simon has given back to the community and assisted students who, despite difficult life and economic circumstances, were on the pursuit of higher education. 

Since its inception, the Simon Scholars program has sponsored more than 1,500 students in Orange County and invested more than $60 million for financial aid and support. The foundation has partnered with almost 200 colleges and universities across the country. 

“It’s the greatest investment I’ve ever made,” Simon said. “It has yielded the greatest return that I’ve ever received.” 

Gomez was raised by hardworking parents who pushed their children to focus on education, as it was a way that they believed would provide for a better future. The former trustee went on to earn two master’s degrees and retired as the dean for the health sciences division at Cypress College in 2021. 

She committed herself to representing families in Santa Ana, Fountain Valley, and parts of Garden Grove and Tustin as a county board of education trustee in 2016 and remained in her post until July 2022. 

“I’m overwhelmed and appreciative of this recognition. I was blessed by the fortitude of my parents’ hard work and their belief in education,” Gomez said.

While sharing stories of pain and resilience might be difficult for people who have long felt silenced, the panelists agreed sharing their stories can help educators and the public learn how to welcome students as they are.

For those who were unable to attend, a video recording of the forum can be viewed above.