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Mexican-American student Adam Lopez voices advocacy for adding social justice to education

April 20, 2012
Adam Lopez

Adam Lopez

Adam Lopez, a Mexican-American student at NIU and a Golden Apple Scholar, is an advocate for attaining awareness about one’s history.

That includes one’s familial and cultural roots: People who gain a greater understanding of themselves can better “come together and create positive change,” he says.

Lopez also sees a place for himself and others like him – people of color – in creating that change by becoming teachers.

“Students need good role models that have the same face as they do, and understand their culture and their fears,” he says.

Lopez, who is seeking a degree in history education, recently spoke about social justice issues in education to members of NIU’s Presidential Commission on the Status of Minorities.

“I was happy to speak at this event, and I was even happier to have my parents attend,” he says. “My speech was about my family and the importance of learning where we come from.”

Outside of being a teacher of color, Lopez believes that increasing one’s awareness about social justice issues in education is crucial to overcoming the challenges that arise when educating a diverse student body.

The Latino population is the fastest growing in the United States. In California, Latino students recently became the majority of the student body.

Yet the question is raised whether the needs of these students are being met across the country, particularly in states where there are large numbers of Latino American students.  Illinois is one of these states.

Meanwhile, in the 2012 report “NEA and Teacher Recruitment: An Overview,” the National Education Association reports that “at a time when the demand for minority teachers is rising, the supply is falling.”

Lopez says he is exasperated by the data. Only an estimated 5 percent of educators are teachers of color.

He also points to the recent banning of a world renowned program, Mexican American Studies (MAS), in Tucson, Ariz. A state law, HB 2281, in part prohibits schools from teaching classes that are designed for students of a particular ethnic group.

Tucson’s actions are a step backward for the strides Latinos, African Americans and other groups of color have worked so hard for in an effort to achieve higher education, he says.

“They had a 93 percent graduation rate!” Lopez says. “Now the city completely banned MAS, so Latino students cannot learn about their history, their literature, people who look like them, writing about things that they are familiar with … I feel like we are going backwards. We still don’t know who we are, where we came from or what our culture did.”

His own transition into college life from secondary education opened those doors.

“Once I got to college, everything came like a wave,” he says. “I had always been interested in history, but I had not known my own history, as a Mexican, until I came to NIU. After I started learning about my own history, I wanted to share this knowledge with younger generations.”

Some of those “missing puzzle pieces” came through his participation in education courses that were infused with components of social justice issues, which aided his understanding of his secondary education experiences.

“The LEPF [Leadership, Educational and Psychology Foundations] program’s inclusion of social justice issues in its courses is impactful and engages students in real life issues relevant to education,” he says.

“In our class, students are required to work in small groups, present in front of the class, create solutions to serious problems affecting the human race, and write critical reflection papers,” says Molly Swick, instructor and doctoral candidate in LEPF. “They are encouraged to critically analyze the world around them. We discuss sensitive social justice issues, including racism, sexism and classism.”

Latino Resource CenterLopez, whose emphases include Latin-American studies and black studies, earns high praise from his teachers.

“Adam is easily in the top 5 percent of any student I have had in regards to motivation, leadership and desire to make a difference in education and the world,” Swick says.

“Adam is a really dynamic and engaged student,” adds LEPF assistant professor Joseph Flynn. “(He) works really hard in support of social justice issues.”

When Lopez begins teaching – his graduation is planned for May 2013 – he intends to start a program rooted in ethnic and cultural studies in a school where the majority of the student population is either Latino, African-American or both. Curriculum like the banned MAS program in Tucson is a way to engage students with relevant pedagogy, he says.

He also will continue making use of his awareness and knowledge to aid students of color in seeking higher education.

Working for the Latino Resource Center, he takes students on guided tours of NIU’s campus. He says he enjoys these tours because he gets the opportunity to be a teacher each time.

“The tours are more personal and comfortable for the students,” Lopez says, in comparison to the standard NIU campus tour. “I get an opportunity to talk about what’s going on, and we discuss the resources that are available to them for achieving higher education.”

by Janey Kubly