She Was Inspired at Pacific; Now She's Inspiring Others
The high school classroom is immaculate. Whiteboards and a projection screen dominate the front wall, while black chairs and white desks marked with blue painter’s tape for social distancing fill the room. Off to the side, a wall of windows illuminates the room. Welcome to Hillsboro High School, where Martha Méndez Bolaños ’21 will be teaching English language learners in the same school she once attended.
“It’s been a long journey for me and my family. I can’t believe I’m here right now,” Méndez Bolaños said, holding back tears.
“I spent so much time thinking college wasn’t for me, and now I know it was for me. I’m going to become an educator and work with the community where I come from. I can provide empathy to my students and their families, and work to support my students in the way I wish I and my family had been supported.”
The Pacific alumna received her bachelor’s degree in Spanish in May 2021, and was honored by the Confederation in Oregon for Language Teaching. She is now working toward an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teaching endorsement with a projected completion in Spring 2022.
“I’m going to become an educator and work with the community where I come from.”
—Martha Méndez Bolaños '21
“It was an honor to have Martha as a student here at Pacific University,” said Spanish Professor Nancy Christoph. “She is a born leader.”
“I certainly plan to stay in touch with her as she launches her career as a bilingual teacher who will model to all students, but especially Spanish-speaking recent immigrants, the success one can achieve if one takes advantage of opportunities and perseveres.”
Searching for a Better Life
“I just knew that I didn’t want to work in the fields the rest of my life,” Méndez Bolaños said.
At 4 years old, she moved from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Oregon with her mother and two siblings, joining her father and three older siblings. Her family worked in the farm fields of Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove as well as Anderson, Fresno and Oxnard in California.
In between the migrant seasons, learning English and fitting in at schools in Hillsboro proved challenging. There was only one bilingual teacher and few immigrant students like her. Mixtec, an Indigenous language, was her first language.
She laughs recalling a time in second grade when her teacher asked students to draw the three ships Christopher Columbus sailed on behalf of Spain. Méndez Bolaños drew three sheep with collars and named them Niña, Pinta and Santa Maria.
A summer trip to Pacific University as a third-grader planted the seeds of higher education. Joelle Rickard MEd '11, then a PE teacher, took Méndez Bolaños and a group of migrant students on a tour of the university in 1997 to instill in them at an early age that higher education was within their reach.
“The children were overflowing with knowledge, resilience and a strong sense of family, culture and language. What they needed was for the system to work for them and not against them,” said Rickard, now Forest Grove School District instructional coach. “If I played a small part in Martha’s story, I feel blessed. Martha is amazing, and she is a person who will change the system for her students. She is the teacher they have been waiting for.”
Méndez Bolaños kept two photos from that visit. She remembers walking around the Forest Grove Campus, walking by the dorms, grabbing lunch from the cafeteria, eating lunch outside and having the photo taken. It was an exhilarating experience that resonated with her.
“It was overwhelming,” she recalls. “I wasn’t allowed to sleep at anyone else’s house. It’s a cultural thing. I didn’t even go to Outdoor School,” she said.
“When I was thinking about sleeping in the dorms, I thought, ‘Who does that?’ I had never been exposed to a college before. Everything was so new.”
Twenty years later, she toured Pacific University again at a transfer student open house and enrolled in 2019.
Making a Difference
“As a 9-year-old I thought, ‘This is out of my reach,’” Méndez Bolaños said. “How could I afford to attend college? I was undocumented, there was no DACA then.”
Determined to change her future, she stopped working in the fields after graduating from high school and landed a job with the Hillsboro School District in the Migrant Education Program.
While speaking at the Coaching for Education Equity conference in Cottage Grove in 2017, she reconnected with Rickard, the mentor who introduced her to Pacific University. Rickard and colleagues at Fairview Elementary School encouraged Méndez Bolaños to go back to school and become a teacher.
A 4.0 GPA from Portland Community College and Pacific University’s Founders Scholarship, among others, made that dream possible.
“Martha brings so much to any classroom she is a part of because of her brilliance, kindness, criticality, and care,” said Pacific Education Assistant Professor Tara Meister.
“She clearly is teaching for and with her community, demonstrating the responsibility she feels by asking profound questions, seeking feedback, and offering creativity and curiosity. Her deep sense of self and her relationality will serve all of her students, but especially those who see something of themselves and their culture in her.”
Méndez Bolaños is the first person in her family to earn a college degree. She says she decided to teach teenagers because her brother dropped out of high school shortly after moving to the U.S. She blames the lack of services and support. She also wants to make a difference in the community where she grew up.
“Some newcomer students don’t have the option but to seek a better place or home because of what their life was like in their countries of origin. And when they come here, it’s difficult for their parents to navigate the educational system,” Méndez Bolaños said.
“I want to be that extra adult in their lives that can root for them, believe in them, and let them know they can succeed. Survival and generating income is important, but I also want to encourage my students to continue their academic education because that will take them anywhere they want to go.” ■
This story appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Pacific magazine. For more stories, visit pacificu.edu/magazine.