When Marissa Molina started school in Glenwood Springs, she did miserably on her placement test because it was in English and she was a Spanish speaker.
She went on to be 2010’s Miss Strawberry Days and the first member of her family to attend college. Now she is a core member of Teach for America, a program that sends high-achieving students to teach for two years in needy areas. Molina will teach at the Denver School of Science and Technology.
Her family — father Carlos, mother Marisela, sister Gabriela and brother Jose — moved from Mexico to Glenwood Springs in December 2001 on work visas. Speaking no English, the family left all they knew to pursue a better life.
“My parents gave up so much,” Marissa Molina said. “They had completely different lives. My dad was successfully involved in regional and state politics, and my mom worked for the government. We had extended family there, friends, activities, a house, everything. We picked up and came to nothing — except promise.”
Marissa lives in Denver, and her family now lives in New Castle. Gabriela is the first among them to become a naturalized citizen. Carlos works for Pacific Sheet Metal, Marisela owns her own business, Gabriela works for Valley View Hospital and Jose will be a senior this year at Glenwood Springs High. Her parents and brother have permanent residency, and Marissa is covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals as she awaits her parents’ petition for her permanent residency.
Here, in her own words, is Molina’s story from starting school in Glenwood Springs to graduating in May with a degree in political science from Fort Lewis College in Durango. She’s now preparing for her Teach for America assignment in Denver.
Do you remember what is was like on your first day of school?
I have vivid first-day memories. I walked in with my mom during registration, and they didn’t know where to put me. In Mexico I was an advanced student ready for the fifth grade. But when taking placement exams in Glenwood Springs, I was required to test in English and failed miserably. The only thing I knew how to say in English was “I don’t speak English.”
Ultimately I was sent to a language-learning class and started school at a fourth-grade level. I was welcomed with open arms, and that made all the difference.
At what point in your life did you choose your course of study and likely career path?
I decided to major in political science after taking Coach Mike Schneiter’s global issues class. In that course we really talked about how the world came to be the way it is, about the environment, local politics, international politics and more. When I was in Mexico, I was very involved with my dad’s campaigns, so I really wanted to learn what shaped American communities and our country. I knew that to make a difference I had to understand how policy was made and how the whole system worked.
As a Mexican immigrant and a political science major, how do you feel about the U.S. border issues?
It’s complicated, but for me it goes back to an issue of humanity. We get so caught up in what’s Republican or what’s Democrat that we forget there’s a family or child at the end of the issue. People who are very real. People who sacrifice because they need a job or a safe haven.
Tell me about college.
Once at Fort Lewis College, I worked at the Office of Academic Advising and Admissions and also at El Centro, the school’s multicultural center. There I met a lot of frustrated kids attempting to be the first in their families to attend college — just like me. Many came from Native American populations living in underprivileged reservation communities. I had been afforded so much opportunity and support to get where I was, and I saw that this was missing for these kids. I wasn’t smarter or more driven, I’d just been given the chance. Higher education should be for everyone, not a luxury for the few. When a friend told me about Teach for America, I decided to apply to start giving back, a pay-it-forward kind of thing. I still want to get into politics someday, but I want to do something that’s not just for me right now.
Explain Teach for America.
Teach for America exists to end educational inequity, closing the gaps between minority students like Latinos and Afro-Americans as compared to achievements of their Caucasian counterparts. Teach for America also addresses the needs of impoverished, disadvantaged communities that can’t break the cycle of area-based underfunded education. Students get access to better education through open enrollment schools like Denver School of Science and Technology, schools are strategically located to serve challenged populations. DSST, located in Green Valley Ranch, is set to graduate its first class spring 2015.
What’s the difference between a Teach for America teacher and other teachers?
The majority of Teach for America members were not education majors and complete a special program of study to receive an alternative license at first, and eventually a full teaching license. Those choosing to work with TFA do so to further both their personal mission and TFA’s goal to fight educational inequity inside and outside of the classroom. They either remain educators or go on to other vocations utilizing their TFA experience as a foundation.
You really seem to embrace America. What do you think accounts for that?
I’m a collection of all the people I’ve met and all the things I’ve learned since coming to the country. I’m living out what I envisioned and dreamed of, and this country gave me that. This is my home.