US_Army_51842_U.S._Army_South_celebrates_Hispanic_Heritage_MonthWhen I began filling out college applications my family was confused. Wasn’t my high school diploma enough? Shouldn’t I just get a job and start a family? In our community and many others, this is typically regarded as the path for a Latino male. But I knew my path would be different.  Excitement does not begin to describe how I felt when I was accepted to the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had the chance to live in the dorms, join sports, participate in many extra-curricular activities and study abroad in Paris. In short, I had the best time of my life.

Now, as an assistant principal in L.A., I spend my days working to ensure that other students who share my background have access to these great life experiences. I first began to realize that education was the place for me during my years at UCSB, when I had the chance to visit a number of local public schools — a few miles down the road but worlds away from our pristine quads and classrooms. Seeing the discrepancies in academic achievement and facilities connected directly to the classes I’d been taking and ignited my interest for social justice. As I learned more, I began to view the classroom as the singular most powerful place to have the kind of impact I imagined.

By the time I graduated, I had a degree in Sociology and Political Science, a minor in Education, and a focus on Immigration, Critical Race Theory and Education Reform. From there, I began to teach. And it was during my four years in the classroom (then another as principal teacher in residence) that my academic interest in education transformed into a deep, abiding passion. I went on to earn my master’s in Education Policy and Administration from Loyola Marymount University and now serve as assistant principal at PUC Community Charter Middle School in the San Fernando Valley, very close to where I grew up. Every day, I feel blessed to be able to give back to the community that gave me so much.

As a first-generation Mexican-American and the first college graduate in my immediate family, I am very proud to be helping others realize what’s possible through education. Most powerful of all, today, my family takes pride in my decision to pursue higher education and by how motivated I’ve become to make a difference in this world.

Looking at my students, I see so much of myself, from the community and culture we share to the challenges we’ve faced. In my own academic life, I’ve questioned if I had what it took to be successful. Studying never came easy to me and there were so many cultural messages pulling me away from applying myself in school. But I also know what is now possible for me because I did. If my students internalize one thing, I hope it will be this.

Today, I bring my personal story, along with my identity as first-generation Mexican- American and college graduate, to school with me. As a leader, I bring all these elements and hold the mirror up to my students, staff and families. Every day we are faced with obstacles — some small and direct, others stemming from larger systemic oppressions. I’m proud to stand as a living example for the many families I have come to meet and love over the years that college doesn’t have to be a dream. Together, we can make it a reality.

In all of this, the role of committed educators cannot be overstated. As Hispanic Heritage month comes to a close, I hope we’ll remember the unique role for classroom and school leadership in the broader fight for equity and opportunity. Every day, my colleagues and I are privileged to help shape the minds and futures of our next generation. As you imagine your own future, I hope you’ll join us.

Claudio Estrada ‘09 is an assistant principal in Los Angeles and 2010 Teach For America alumnus.

This is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.
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