Published: Sept. 1, 2010 By

In high school I used to say I was going to lead a revolution in education, although I didn’t know what exactly it would look like. As a senior in high school I didn’t even know how to apply for college or what the SAT was. No one in my family had ever attended college.

But 26 years later, I am an associate professor of science education at CU and find myself looking out at an audience of children of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation. These children from low-income communities are on campus to learn how to trust and be true to themselves and work to reach their dreams. I was very much like these children, which is why I think the speech I am about to give them is one of the most important of my life. I know that without the several angels who guided me in my youth to the place I am today, I would’ve fallen through the cracks.

Getting an education in my family didn’t come easy. Yet, there has been an enduring thirst for learning that has run through my family for generations. My father always told us, “Education is a privilege not to be abused.” He got this attitude from my great-grandma, Lupita Sanchez, who quit school in second grade to take care of her brothers and sisters when her mom died. They lived on a farm in Los Lunas, N.M., in a small house with 17 children and two bedrooms.

My dad told us stories about his grandma arguing with his grandpa to allow my dad and his siblings to go to elementary school. My great-grandpa thought they should stay home and work on the farm. “That’s why we have kids,” he’d say. My dad knelt on the dirt floor every night praying that his grandpa would let him go to school. What a gift it would be.

My father finally was allowed to go to school and graduated from high school at the top of his class. He wanted to teach high school math someday and even mustered the courage to stand in the admissions line at the University of New Mexico. At the window the lady said, “That’ll be $173.”

My dad remembers asking, “Where am I going to get that?”

“Next,” said the lady.

So my dad got a job as a bag-boy at Barber’s Market to support his growing family. He moved up and ultimately bought his own grocery store in Albuquerque.

My mother also set her sights on college. In high school, she went to a guidance counselor and asked him how to apply. The counselor corrected her English and told her she would probably get married and have babies. That was the end of the story.

But my sister and I enrolled at the University of New Mexico with money we made at my dad’s grocery store. I realized I loved math and was good at it. It was a direct line of communication to God, I thought.

Mathematics provided a language that allowed me to talk about 4-dimensions, 5-dimensions, n-dimensions. I could map onto the real or imaginary axes. I could work in a space in which the sum of the angles of a triangle was less than 180 degrees. I could define any space I could imagine and do work within it.

This, I thought, is freedom.

To meet core requirements I enrolled in an astronomy course for which I had to take a co-requisite, physics. “What is physics?” I wondered.

I found physics was like glorious math with glitter on top. It explained much of what I had always wondered about, and some things I never thought to imagine. I eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics education.

I beat the odds because several angels were placed in my path.

The first angel was professor Daniel Finley, my physics professor at the University of New Mexico. He always told me I should do research in his lab. But I felt a responsibility to help my family and working at the grocery store was my first priority, so I never worked in his lab. Finley then suggested I apply to a summer research fellowship. I explained I had to work at my dad’s grocery store — there was simply no way. I will never forget the day Finley’s secretary grabbed my arm and sat with me while I filled out the application. She even mailed it for me, knowing that I would never have actually sent it myself.

I was accepted for the fellowship and in summer of 1991, having earned my bachelor’s degree in physics, I flew to San Diego. It turned out my parents were overjoyed that I had such a wonderful opportunity. Who knew? I thought they wanted me to stay and work at the grocery store.

In San Diego, I met professor Henry Rutland, the director of minority recruitment and retention at the University of California, San Diego. He called every day requesting that I come to his office. Finally I went, not even realizing that I needed help. He helped me apply to graduate school. Rutland talked about the “conspiracy” every time he got on the phone to encourage others to take action on my behalf. One day I asked him, “How can I ever thank you for everything you have done for me?” He said, “Just give it back to someone else someday.”

And that is exactly what I am trying to do, one student at a time. I usually work with undergraduate students, so I am really nervous to speak to these elementary, middle and high school “I Have A Dream” children or “dreamers,” as they are called.

I had a dream, too. But it isn’t a dream anymore; it is my life — made possible by those who, for some reason, decided to believe in me, invest in me and advocate on my behalf. Sometimes you just have to live up to other people’s belief in you.

Valerie Otero is director of the Colorado Learning Assistant program in which undergraduates help science, mathematics and engineering faculty improve their large-enrollment undergraduate courses. Many become K-12 teachers through the CU-Teach program and are eligible for Noyce, McCray and Hach Scholarships of up to $15,000 per year.