Published: May 25, 2018

Ofelia Schepers speaking at graduation

This May, the CU Boulder School of Education welcomed family and friends to celebrate our Education Minors, Leadership Studies Minors, Teacher Licensure graduates, and Master’s and Doctoral degree recipients at our Graduation Ceremony.

Our 2018 teacher education graduates are dedicated to creating classrooms that support students’ passions and interests, while fostering inclusive spaces where all students learn. To celebrate our student successes, we invited two student keynote speakers to the stage, Tyler LeCroy and Ofelia Schepers.

Ofelia Schepers is a doctoral graduate in the Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity program and studied teacher stress in a rural school district that is culturally, linguistically and economically diverse. Her experience as a bilingual student through her K-12 education inpired her work towards a path of social justice in education. Read Schepers’ inspiring keynote speech to learn more about her journey here.

Student Keynote Speech - Ofelia Schepers

Good Evening y Feliz Dia de las Madres Ama and to all of those celebrating Mother’s Day today and Sunday.

What an honor it is to have the opportunity to address all of you at our graduation ceremony. I want to begin with a quick memory of the beginning of my Ph.D. experience. I remember the first week of orientation when we got to meet with the chairs of our department. Four of us sat and stared anxiously and excitedly at the late Dr. Janette Klingner and Dr. Kathy Escamilla as they further explained the program specifically the Educational Equity and Cultural Diversity department and the process of the Ph.D. Dr. Escamilla explained that it would be a roller coaster, there would be ups and downs, and possibly crying she then remarked ‘and that’s just on the first day.'

We laughed not realizing we would understand the humor more than we wanted to a few days into the program. In the midst of the laughter, Dr. Klingner gave us a comforting smile, one that had an essence of calmness. Though I did not have the privilege of getting to know Dr. Klingner much beyond that short encounter, when I found myself overwhelmed by the process (and I often did), I thought about this moment in time, Dr. Klingner’s essence of calmness. I then reflected on the work that her, Dr. Escamilla, and our faculty have done to ensure equitable access to education for so many children and I refocused my energy on why the work I have chosen to follow and the program I have completed are vital to shifting our school institutions to better serve all students.

This journey has been important in many ways. Personally, I am still shocked that it took me being in a graduate program to see myself within the theory and the literature. Over the last 5 years, I have been exposed to conceptual and embodied understandings about systemic inequalities and structures within our overall society, but more specifically within the education system. I find it an interesting place to situate myself – a woman of color who is still coming into consciousness of her own lived theory. And I now understand that I am living and have always lived theory through my experiences, through my relationships, and through my own cultural, historical, and linguistic sensibilities. Yet, I continue to struggle knowing that many children will never have the opportunity to see themselves represented in the literature and in their classrooms and theories if we don’t actively push ourselves as educators to shift our practices.

Ofelia Schepers and Dr. Kathy Escamilla

Ofelia Schepers and Professor Kathy Escamilla

This awareness has given me the opportunity to embrace my personal story as evidence and has allowed me to see more depth within the collective and diverse stories that surround us in our daily interactions, and more importantly within classrooms and schools where so often these stories are silenced, overlooked, or misunderstood. Yet, these lived experiences contribute to the personal evidence that creates people's’ realities. While personal evidence seems not to have a place in academia, there is an irony to the displacement of those personal quests and that as Ruth Behar says, “ours is an age in which truth exists largely in the form of personal testimony.” So, I want to share my personal testimonio, as it took me entering academia to truly understand the power that our truths hold.

I immigrated to this country at the age of two with my parents, on the heels of the Reagan Administration amnesty for agricultural workers. My parents sold all of our belonging to pay for the visa requirements and we made our way to Iowa to be with family. My parents spent time working at meat packing plants in the area and we lived with our family for many of our first years in this country. At times, there were as many as 11 of us under one roof.  We would make it work until we packed up and moved again. When in education we talk about transient, migrant, emerging bilinguals, in high needs schools, this describes my lived experiences throughout my schooling. By the time I reached 3rd grade, I had attended 4 schools and had lived in 6 different cities and 2 different countries. Though the research that guides the narrative which indicates that transient populations, Latinos, and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds graduate at much lower proportions than their stable, (often) White, middle class peers, my siblings and I managed to not only graduate high school, but excel in many areas of the high school experience. Despite the powerful economic forces and moves - despite the language barriers and painful talk about our need to assimilate or acculturate, we sustained and we resisted. Our family held onto Spanish, our native language. We helped and nourished one another, reimagining our story, all while navigating the barriers we continued to experience throughout our schooling years.

I am first in my family to attend college and within the first few years of my post-secondary education, I began to reflect more deeply on my earlier schooling experiences. Specifically, I was able to take apart and critically see my experiences. In my first years of studying Education, I began to understand that schooling had never been built for students like me. Yet, I also saw that there were deeply important encounters I had with people and specific support programs. Together, these people and programs worked as “cultural brokers’ - as bridges from a familiar world toward an unfamiliar world. These memories arose as I learned the history of schooling and Latinos and students of color in this country and the inequities and oppressions that were and continue to be faced

Through these reflections, two moments in my K-12 experience stand out, though there were many, that I believe have led me towards a path of social justice in education.

The first I experienced as a 7th grader, where after years of English schooling and excelling in English Language Arts, I was taken out of electives to attend remediation in English as a Second Language course. Not because of my capacity (as was visible through my “A’s” in previous similar courses, but rather based on only looking at a child through their home language survey in the turn of a new school administration). Through some resistance of my own and eventually the office staff allowing me to “test out.” I was able to get myself back into the elective I had chosen. The things I learned in the short time I had to sit through the course were these: it was an isolated, segregated environment, most of the students in the course were not being challenged, and the teacher was not qualified to address the language concerns of the students (as reflecting on the worksheet after worksheet of pictures of animals and foods we had to label daily as a mixed group of immigrants: some of  whom had been a part of the US education system their entire lives and some of whom were recent immigrants).

The second event happened my senior year of high school. I was taken out of the Accelerated English course even though I met the requirements of maintaining an A average in previous accelerated English courses. It also placed me in a classroom that failed to challenge me in any capacity. Through my reflection of this instance later in college I learned three things: I was tracked in high school, once again this course was completely segregated (I had finally found where many of my peers of color had been all of my high school years), and finally, much like my previous experience in middle school, the course lacked rigor in preparing us to be successful at institutions of higher education.

Though these opportunities opened my eyes to inequities, it is not the negative experiences I want to emphasize. These experiences allowed me to take into account all of the access points and cultural brokers I had along the way. They were there to bridge my story into these spaces and these encounters allowed me an opportunity to eventually earn a Ph.D. and at the same time ignited my passion to implement and research educational opportunity programs in K-12 education and at the collegiate level as well as equity efforts in schools and systems.

I can trace these bridges, my cultural brokers and access points to the following:  scholarship funders who focus on equity, educational opportunity programs (such as College Assistant Migrant Program, McNair Scholars, and programs like our very own BUENO center – that support students not only through academia, but also through expanding on the cultural competencies of current teachers), and other grants, people, and programs that bridge the cultural and opportunity gap, that make it possible for students, who like me, have many cards stacked against them, to realize their full academic potential.

And it is so much more than structural programs and funders, it is also the loving people that walk the journey with you. I am sure if you think through your educational path you can envision these people. For me, it was my elementary school teachers, that treated me with dignity and respect, my step-father who stepped in and was a cultural broker in many aspects of our lives, my college advisor who introduced me to educational opportunity programs, my husband and in-laws who walked the undergraduate journey with me, Dr. Escamilla and my committee members who were dedicated to my successful defense of my dissertation, as well as family and friends.

Cultural brokers as people are the ones that knew and believed in our strengths especially when they did not match the norm. They understood the wealth of our linguistic and cultural experiences, and they guided us through these unfamiliar spaces with an encouraging smile and understanding hearts. It’s these people, the people who believe that investing in the most marginalized populations and realizing equity will bring the best to our society, that truly make an impact in closing the opportunity gap.

Note that I mention investing, as we go out into our educational career path or continue our educational careers know that we have the opportunity to be an access point or cultural broker to students by bridging systemic knowledge for them in K-12 schools or higher education. And though it may seem logical to think we can “save” students, know that the students do not need nor want us to be their saviors. They do not need us to take them home. They don't need us to pity them.  And they certainly do not need us to question their capacity. What they do need is for us to understand that their lives look different, not better, not worse, but different. They need us to understand that this difference does not mean that they are not cared for or loved. This difference does not mean that they are not capable. This difference simply means that they are attending schools that historically were not created for them. That there are systems (including our U.S. Education system) that were created to marginalize them. It is our job to shift education systems to be equitable. Whether it is in a 1st grade classroom, shifting towards inclusive curriculums, honoring home languages and cultures, seeing students and their families through positive asset-based frames, or in higher education, understanding that simply because someone has been accepted into a program of higher education, it does not mean we assume “they should know” the system.

We have the opportunity to enact social change in our schools and universities or we can choose to perpetuate the status quo.

I want to leave you with the following quote by Gloria Anzaldua - a prominent Chicana theorist -- which resonates with me and my need to continue to support students through their educational paths. 

 “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar.” 

(Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks.)

I hope that you take your well-earned educational knowledge and help create those bridges.

Congratulations and Good Luck! Thank you!

- Ofelia Schepers