School occupies a special place in Julie Chavez’s heart.
“I had quite the unstable childhood, and school was really my safe place. I had a meal; I had teachers who cared about me; it was structured – I just really thrived in that environment,” says Chavez, a senior Elementary Education major from Aurora.
“With everything I went through as a child, I want to provide that same support for my future students,” she adds. “In my clinical placement right now, I see so much of myself in those students, and it just really makes me feel validated that I’m in the right profession.”
Chavez isn’t alone in that assessment.
NIU Career Services has named her Intern of the Year (gold scholarship award recipient), which includes a $1,325 scholarship and follows her designation as Fall 2020 Intern of the Semester.
Founders Elementary School in DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, meanwhile, already has hired Chavez for the fall as a second-grade teacher: “It’s my dream grade,” she says, “and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
“Her pre-teaching training at NIU has prepared her to meet the needs of the diverse learners at Founders,” Principal Connie L. Rohlman says. “She will be a wonderful addition to the staff, collaborating and sharing new instructional strategies.”
The year at Founders has indeed been “amazing,” says Chavez, who’s currently in a third-grade classroom.
“Student-teachers were given the option to stay home and work, just for safety due to COVID, but I thought I wouldn’t really have been able to make those staff relationships or the student relationships if I were at home. I thought that would have been really difficult,” she says.
“But it’s honestly been amazing,” she adds. “I’ve met so many great staff there who are just awesome mentors, who really support me and want me to learn. The students are so sweet. I’ve built some awesome relationships with them, and I can tell they’re excited to see me. I’m excited to see them.”
Interning during the pandemic has provided its own benefits.
DeKalb mostly has operated in a hybrid mode this year, with the “A group” of students who choose in-person instruction coming to school Mondays and Tuesdays while the “B group” reports Thursdays and Friday. Wednesdays have been fully remote.
Families now have the choice to send children to school all five days, Chavez says, but the practical benefits for teachers remain.
“We log in, and we’re doing both jobs at the same time: teaching online and teaching the students in front of us in the classroom,” she says. “I’ve learned so much. I would not have considered myself, before this year, someone who was super technology savvy. Now I can do anything on the computer.”
The transfer student from Waubonsee Community College also has enjoyed the opportunity to put into action the preparation she’s receiving from the NIU Department of Curriculum and Instruction.
“I love my cohort. We’re a really tight-knit family; we talk all the time; we support each other in anything we do, which has been great. We’ve taken the same classes together and have stuck together though our program,” says Chavez, who had heard good things about the Elementary Education major and its ESL/Bilingual endorsement.
“I’ve also met some amazing professors and instructors who have shown their professionalism – shown me what it’s really like to work in the field – and I’ve applied all those things in my internship,” she adds.
“What’s really amazing, on my part, is that I can implement these new, 21st century teaching ideas with my cooperating teacher and any other staff at my clinicals, and I feel like that’s prepared me across all of my classroom management strategies. My literacy strategies, my math strategies – those all came from NIU, which set the building blocks for me to become Intern of the Year and also to get a job. I am very happy with my decision to come here.”
Chavez’s goals for this career are impressive – and rooted in a time before her birth.
Her parents individually immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Her father, an artist, came from Jalisco; her mother, who works in debt collection, from Michoacán. They met in Illinois, where their daughter was born.
Both are fluent in English and Spanish, but Chavez lived for most of her life with her paternal grandparents, who speak only Spanish. That linguistic barrier made her an English Language Learner at school with no external academic support from loving grandparents who simply could not read the homework written in English.
Yet as a first-generation American, and a first-generation college student, she has written a different story for herself than the one that could have been.
“Being the first person to ever go to college is a big deal in my family, and for me to have this success is an even bigger deal,” Chavez says.
“When my parents found out that I got the job – oh my God, they were freaking out. This is like the American dream for me. They’re amazing, I love them and they’re really proud of me,” she adds. “I’m happy that I was able to take all of their sacrifices, and all those struggles that they went through, to make something of myself. Hard work really does pay off.”
Producing outcomes like hers for her future students is what drives her now.
“One of my biggest goals is to create some sort of after-school program or organization where I can support students who don’t have a lot of academic or socio-emotional support at home, just like me,” Chavez says.
“We will just build this community of, ‘Oh, you need this? Let’s help you,’ or ‘Oh, you don’t have anyone to take you to your baseball game? We’ll all go and support you there.’ ‘We’ll help you with your homework if your parents don’t understand how to help you with that.’ We’ll be a community of students who feel safe, and can continue their education, outside of the normal school hours.”
She also hopes to establish a “You can do it!” scholarship for first-generation college students.
“That’s what I was. I never had a college fund, and I didn’t have any support in applying for colleges because my family had never done that before. I was the first one,” says Chavez, who has held jobs at day cares, gyms, swimming pools and now at Target to help pay for school. “I’ve had to work my entire college career so far – the whole time, at multiple jobs, while I’m a full-time student. I just want to make it easier.”
Yet in the end, it’s likely neither an after-school program nor a college scholarship that will allow Chavez to make her biggest impact as a teacher.
It’s Chavez herself.
“My goal is to create a culturally responsive, safe environment where every one of my students, when they walk into my classrooms, feels safe. They feel welcome. They feel celebrated. They feel challenged,” she says.
“That’s super important to me: that every student is seen, and that every student is able to feel comfortable and confident. That’s something I so lacked as a child – just that confidence,” she adds. “I really want to show my students that, ‘You can do anything. Look at me. I had nothing growing up; I had to work and work and work to get where I am today. I’m your biggest cheerleader. I’m your biggest supporter. You can come to me for anything.’ I just want to support these kids and help them grow in any way they can.”
Clearly, the last seven months at Founders have demonstrated her potential and just those possibilities.
“Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” Chavez says. “It’s awesome to teach things. It’s awesome to make a difference in students’ lives.”