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Leadership and Counseling Alumni Erika Valasco

From Trials to Treasures: Fighting For Education

It’s easy to take our ample opportunities for granted, including a chance to get a good education and attend college if we choose. But for some, finding the opportunities takes a little—and sometimes a lot—more work.
Take Erika Valasco, for example. Erika teaches at Kuna School in southern Idaho, and in December 2010 completed her master’s degree at the University of Idaho. But unlike the majority of students who receive the encouragement and support of family as they continue their education, Erika had to fight her family and her culture for every high school and college credit she received.
As a young girl in Mexico, Erika was under the traditional and overprotective eye of her parents. “They expected me to learn how to read and write, then get married and have children—because in Mexico that’s what girls were expected to do,” said Erika.
But she had other ideas about her life. She loved school and earned good grades—and she didn’t want to stop learning. In spite of peer and parental pressure, Erika fought for her right to continue her education. Her father and uncle were working in the United States, so Erika wrote her father asking if she could come to the U.S. to study.
“My brother didn’t want me to go,” said Erika. “He said that girls just flirted with boys and tried to find a boyfriend. But I finally convinced my parents to let me come to the U.S. in 1998 when I was 16 years old.”
Erika arrived in Sun Valley, Idaho, to live with her uncle and complete high school. But the adjustment was more difficult than she could have imagined. Living in an area known for its wealth made her feel like she was in a lower social class. Not only that, she had a difficult time learning the language. She quickly became deeply discouraged.
“I hated it at first,” said Erika. “Socially and culturally everything was really hard. People looked down on us because we didn’t know the language. It was very shocking to find myself part of a Latino class that was considered trash.”

Digging for Strength

Erika started her junior year of high school at Sun Valley and spent most of her days in ESL classes learning the English language. But she wanted to learn more than English, and knew she was capable. “I knew I needed to know English, but it seemed like I was just there and that nobody cared what I was or was not learning,” she said.
Erika began to see the hurdle she needed to overcome, but she also began to see a glimmer of what she might do with the rest of her life: become a teacher and help other Latinos like herself.
After her junior year of high school, Erika worked in a hotel. She told her Dad she wanted to go back to school the next year and learn more English, and he agreed that she needed to learn English well so she could work as a cashier at the local store. “You need to do that so you can get a good job,” he said. Initially, that seemed like a good goal to her.
Erika did go back, and graduated from high school with a 3.5 GPA. Encouraged by her success, she set her sites on something more than a cashier job. She applied for a teaching assistant job at an elementary school in Ketchum, and worked there four years.
Against her family’s wishes, Erika married her best friend from high school and soon had a daughter. Her life was going well, but she still wanted more. Eyeing a college degree as her next goal, she decided to take some classes from the College of Southern Idaho. She had the support of her fellow teachers and principal—but not her family. They were uncomfortable with her attending college in another town. So when their daughter was two years old, Erika and her husband moved to Boise so she could attend BSU on a McNair Scholarship and finish her undergraduate studies.
But then an unexpected obstacle emerged. Because her husband had stayed in the U.S. beyond his work visa, he was forced to return to Mexico for 14 months while the paperwork was being done and he could return. Erika was left alone to raise their daughter, work, and attend school.
“I would get up at 5:00 a.m., get my daughter ready, take her downtown to the Boise Daycare Center, then drive all the way to Kuna to do my student teaching, come back to Boise and get her, then take my classes in the evenings from 6:00 pm – 9:00 p.m.,” said Erika. “My family told me I just needed to come back to Mexico. But I told them no, we have a mortgage and a car payment and a life here.”
When Erika finally finished her bachelor’s degree in education, she didn’t feel like going through the ceremony—but her professors insisted. So with no family, her husband in Mexico, and few friends, Erika participated in the commencement ceremony in May 2007. Five months later in October, her husband was finally able to come back to the U.S.
“I could be a lawyer by now because I know everything about immigration,” she said. “We couldn’t afford a lawyer, so I did a lot of research. I wrote letters, my professors wrote letters for me, and finally he was able to come home. It was very stressful.”

Finding the Treasure

After earning her bachelor’s degree, Erika returned to Kuna to teach the first grade. When the school decided to implement a dual language program, she became a leader and dual-language teacher. Classes at Kuna are taught in English 80 percent of the time and in Spanish 20 percent of the time.
“By the third grade, our students are taught fifty-fifty in English and Spanish. They pick it up so fast at that age,” said Erika, who was happy that the lessons she learned during her difficult days in ESL classes in Sun Valley were beginning to pay off. She was finally turning her trials into treasures.
“Erika has been a shining example to her students and fellow teachers,” said Chuck Silzly, the principal at Kuna School. “She is very soft spoken, but yet demands the attention of her students. She has a heart for kids and a willingness to keep learning to help our school achieve academic excellence.”
Hoping to do even more for ESL students, Erika decided to get a master’s degree, so applied to the University of Idaho, where she could take her classes online while still working. She earned her M.Ed. in 2010.
“I first met Erika when she came to my office with her young daughter, asking for information about graduate programs in leadership,” said professor and Counseling and Leadership Department Chair Dr. Russ Joki. “She came in with a list of specific questions and an intense focus on goals. It was clear she knew what she wanted and that she had a resolve to get it done.”
Over the course of her master’s program, Erika set her goals a notch higher. “When I started the program, I wanted to be a principal because I knew I could make a difference,” she said. “But I would never be a principal in a regular school—only in a bilingual or ESL school because that’s where my heart is. Now that I have my certificate, I want to be a superintendent or a professor. I wanted to make a difference in my classroom, then in the school, and now I want to make a difference in the district, or as a professor where I can reach more teachers.”
Joki admires the breadth of experience Erika has to offer others. “She completed the program online with great success,” he said. “Her writing was always carefully researched and articulated. She has so much to offer us—both faculty and students—about an ESL leadership perspective.”
More than anything, Erika wants to help others—particularly those she can identify with who struggle to fit in and learn the English language. She also never forgets about her family in Mexico.
“If I can do this, they can do it also,” she said. “I have encouraged my brothers to continue their education, and my older brother is now at BSU. I know I can do anything I want if I work hard, and so can they.”
What Erika has accomplished has taken a strong commitment and hard work. Against the odds, she forged her life into something that will truly benefit others.
“Erika has given voice to the ESL student and family,” said Joki. During her final master’s presentation, we all realized that this person has lived what she was describing and knows how leadership should respond to the needs and interests of the students. Our profession needs more Erikas in it.”
Erika plans to begin a doctoral program with the University of Idaho in the near future.