Marissa Molina honored at White House
Glenwood’s own Marissa Molina was among those honored at the White House on July 24 for being an extraordinary educator who is in the country under a presidential order granting temporary residency to people brought to the United States without papers as children.
A former Miss Strawberry Days, Molina was one of nine teachers honored as “Champions of Change,” all of whom are covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012 after the U.S. Senate failed to pass the so-called Dream Act, which would have allowed some people brought to the United States under the age of 16 to gain legal residency.
Being able to get DACA status changed Molina’s life, she told the Post Independent last week. When asked about it on the White House panel at the event, she was overcome with emotion telling her story.
“I remember very clearly the year that President Obama announced DACA because it was the same year I had a conversation with my mom and said I don’t want to be in this country like this anymore, let me go back to Mexico, let me live a life where I’m free,” Molina said. “And she said, ‘Wait, Marissa, wait; something good is going to happen.’ I didn’t have that hope she had.
“I remember that year because it was so pivotal to my life. It meant I could graduate college and make that degree mean something. I feel really overwhelmed with emotion just thinking about that day.”
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was on hand for the event and introduced all nine honorees.
“Every chance we have, we try to celebrate amazing teachers. Nothing is harder,” Duncan said. “And all of you we are recognizing today have overcome real challenges, and that grit and that resilience is what we’re trying to teach our kids. Our teachers are nation-builders.”
The chance to be honored at the White House at the age of 23 is something Molina said she still can’t quite grasp.
“I think what is truly remarkable about being honored by the White House for being ‘DACAmented’ teachers is knowing that people in the president’s administration and at the Department of Education are starting to recognize the need in communities and in schools to have educators that support and guide undocumented students and families,” Molina said.
A HUMBLING HONOR
Being able to go to the “people’s house,” as she referred to the White House, and be recognized made her feel part of the country, Molina said.
Molina was nominated for the honor by the school administration where she teaches in the Teach for America program, the Denver School of Science and Technology.
“I could not believe it when I learned I was going to be honored by the White House,” said Molina, a Glenwood Springs High graduate. “I first received an official email from the White House and then got a call from the Office of Public Engagement.”
It was humbling, she said, but it was also an award for her students who have taught her what it means to be a teacher.
At the ceremony, she got a chance to mingle with the other eight teachers being honored. Molina said they inspired her to continue her work.
“They are all extremely committed to their students and have so valiantly persevered through the obstacles of being undocumented,” she said. “Being around people like them allowed me to ground myself in my work and the ‘why’ of teaching.”
In 2001, Molina’s parents, Carlos and Marisela, left Chihuahua, Mexico, to come to Glenwood when she was only 9. At the time, she didn’t know any English. She mostly missed leaving behind her grandfather, with whom she said she was close.
“I have not been back to Mexico in almost 14 years and was unable to be at my grandpa’s funeral two years ago,” Molina said. “That was really difficult for me.”
However, Molina finds strength through her parents. She said they are the most selfless people she knows.
‘WHAT LOVE LOOKS LIKE’
“They left everything — their house, their jobs, their families — so that my siblings could live out our dreams and have a better future,” Molina said. “They sacrifice so much and still wake up every day with a smile on their face and with optimism despite all of the challenges, is what it means to love someone. That is how I know what love and courage looks like.”
It is that courage that led her to the classroom, she said. She runs her classroom in the same manner in which her parents ran their house: with love and care, where students know they are listened to. And, yes, sometimes even with a little tough love, too.
Molina said she didn’t grow up with ambitions of teaching, however. Her education not only inspired that path, but illuminated the need for good teachers.
At Fort Lewis College in Durango, where she majored in political science and was the first member of her family to attain a four-year degree, she realized how much she loved working with students through working in the admissions office.
Even more, she became aware of the “inequity of education in the country,” she said. It was hard for her to accept the lack of guidance for students coming from Native American reservations and Latino students.
“Their schools were not preparing them for the next step; many did not understand the college administrations process, and they received little to no guidance,” Molina said. “It was hard for me to accept that the future of these kids was going to be determined because of where they grew up, the lack of resources and our failing schools.”
She studied political science because she realized that policy and politics shapes communities, so she wanted to better understand how the systems worked.
“I knew that knowing that was key in creating change, but the more I thought aboutit , the more I realized that we could not make our communities better and stronger if we were failing our kids in schools,” Molina said.
Her pathway to becoming a teacher began with Teach for America, a non-profit organization that exists to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach.”
Her school in Denver is one of many schools “strategically located to serve challenged populations,” she said.
Her first year teaching there was “probably the hardest thing I will ever do in my life,” Molina said.
“There were a lot of challenging moments because I was learning a lot as I was teaching,” she said. “Not to mention, the class I teach is one that did not have a strong curriculum or many resources.”
Fortunately, she said, she had had great mentors and a support system at the school that allowed her to be successful.
“I had an amazing group of kids that I worked with, and I am really looking forward to the start of year two,” she said.
She teaches Spanish and loves it because it allows her to share her culture.
“I implement and modify a curriculum that validates the cultures of my students while refining their language skills,” Molina said. “I have worked tirelessly to create a space for my students to celebrate who they are and where they come from.”
At a personal level, she wants to be a trailblazer for her younger brother, Jose, who also attended Glenwood Springs High School and will be a college freshman this fall.
“I want him to know that he can achieve anything he sets his mind to and that his dreams don’t have limitations,” Molina said.
The United States, she believes, is a great place for opportunity, and it’s for that reason that she’s committed to work as an educator.
“I want as many of our kids to have the same opportunity that I had to follow their dreams and be successful,” Molina said. “Where a kid is born, the color of their skin, or their immigration status should never be a determinant of their success or their opportunities.”
For someone that’s already achieved recognition from the White House at 23, she’s still looking ahead to what’s next.
“In the future I see myself working to address the issue of educational inequity at the policy level,” Molina said. “Although I find my work in the classroom extremely rewarding and meaningful, if we are to find solutions to the injustice our kids and communities face, then we need to be able to also address outdated and misinformed policies.”
To get to that point, she plans to go to graduate school at some point, and she said she hopes to pursue a master’s in education policy.
Regarding DACA, Molina believes the order is not a permanent solution to a broken immigration system because it doesn’t grant permanent status and excludes many people.
“There is always a fear that things can change quickly for anyone with DACA,” Molina said. “We hope that our stories as ‘DACAmented’ teachers and those of many other ‘dreamers’ helps people understand the other side of the immigration debate: the human side.”
Molina said she is seeking permanent residency through her parents, who are legal residents.
“I was unfortunately aged out of qualifying with them,” she said. “There are a lot of barriers to apply to fix your status because of age and preference categories that exist.”
She said she wants people to learn more about the issue and the way communities and the country are impacted by the immigrant work force and how undocumented students help shape the future.
“I am hopeful that with collaboration and dialogue both in Washington, D.C., and our cities, we’ll find a solution that respects the dignity of the people who come to this country seeking a better life for themselves and their families,” she said.
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