Griselda Guevara-Cruz once felt lost in school. She didn’t speak English. She didn’t speak Spanish. She didn’t see the value of education.
“I was so anxious. My mom would walk me to the bus, and it seemed so long before I’d get to go home. For awhile, I was one of those lost kids,” the 27-year-old Everett woman said.
Her early childhood in the Yakima Valley, where her parents were migrant farm workers, is now a distant memory. Yet Guevara-Cruz, a 2007 Mariner High School graduate, can’t forget her school struggles, nor those of today’s Latino students.
One of 10 siblings, the daughter of Mateo Guevara and Petra Cruz now has a bachelor’s degree from Whitman College and a master’s from the University of Texas. Her graduate degree is in Mexican-American studies, with an emphasis on education. Her next step will be about helping the next generation.
On Friday, she’ll leave Everett for a year-long graduate fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The nonprofit educational organization works to support high school and college completion and provide leadership opportunities among Latinos. One of fewer than 20 chosen for the program this year, she was selected from more than 500 applicants. She’ll be the institute’s 2016-17 secondary education graduate fellow.
“It was really instilled in me from my family to pay it forward,” Guevara-Cruz said. “What drives me has always been seeing all the sacrifices my parents have made.”
Her parents are indigenous people from Oaxaca in Mexico. “My primary language is Mixteco,” she said. Guevara-Cruz said her early difficulty in school stemmed from the fact that her native tongue, an indigenous language, is neither Spanish nor English. She learned to speak English well after the family moved to Everett when she was 9.
Guevara-Cruz hopes to return to this area to work with students, perhaps in the Mukilteo School District. Before going to Mariner, she attended the district’s Horizon Elementary School and Explorer and Voyager middle schools.
She credits her academic success to teachers who noticed her abilities and encouraged her to set her sights on college. At Voyager, teacher Shelley McCune Henton pushed her to tackle high school algebra in eighth grade.
Susan Davis, once a math teacher at Mariner, and English teacher Jeff Ferderer were helpful in high school, where Guevara-Cruz took a MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) class. It was Davis who looked at her transcript and asked what she was doing after high school. Her answer was, “I’m going to work.”
Instead, she was helped to attend Whitman College with a College Success Foundation scholarship — $40,000 over four years — funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Whitman matched the $10,000 per year, said Guevara-Cruz, a first-generation high school and college graduate. While at Whitman, she worked as a translator in the Walla Walla County juvenile justice system.
Before graduate school in Texas, Guevara-Cruz had an AmeriCorps position as a college and career coach at a middle school in the Highline School District and at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Her aim was preventing kids from dropping out, a critical issue among low-income and minority students. “I worked with young men of color, African-American and Latino boys,” she said.
She sees similar needs in Snohomish County. “I’m always super aware of things that happen in south Everett, and how situations come about,” she said.
In Washington, D.C., Guevara-Cruz expects to work with one of two Texas congressmen, Rep. Ruben Hinojosa or Rep. Joaquin Castro, both Democrats involved in education issues.
Work with educational think tanks may also be part of her fellowship. Already, Guevara-Cruz said, she has been offered a job with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education. Being in Washington, D.C., will bring “some pretty amazing connections,” she said.
Whether here or in Washington, D.C., she can’t escape the harsh rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, especially as it targets people from Mexico. Guevara-Cruz said she has spent the summer encouraging people who are qualified to vote to do so. “We can take something negative and turn it into something positive by voting,” she said.
On Tuesday, she was accompanied at our interview by two younger siblings. Melvin Guevara-Cruz, 12, is a student at Voyager, while Jayleen, 10, is a fifth-grader at Discovery Elementary.
“I try to be a good role model for my siblings,” she said. “I want to tell kids, ‘I walked in your shoes.’ ”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, established as a nonprofit educational organization in the late 1970s, works to support high school and college completion among Latinos, and provides leadership opportunities. Learn more at: http://chci.org/