Turning Adversity into Empowerment

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UW Tacoma alumna Rachel Camarena wants to be a teacher and a role model for marginalized students.

When Rachel Camarena graduated from UW Tacoma this past June, she became the first woman in her family to graduate from college. Not long after Commencement, Camarena accepted an 11-month AmeriCorps contract to work in Calistoga, California as a Volunteer Infrastructure Project Fellow. In this new role she’ll assist educators in creating tailored lesson plans to adapt to a wide range of student needs. This position is the first step towards her goal of being an educator.

Beyond a call to service, Camarena believes she can be a positive influence in the life of a young person. She wants to be the sort of teacher that tells her students that their thoughts are unique, valid, and wanted. This was a sentiment that she wished had been imparted to her in her own elementary education.

Camarena, who is Mexican-American, recalls a specific memory that led her to want to become an educator. A teacher told her that she couldn’t bring food to snack time. The reasoning for this, she remembers, was a fear that her contribution might be “too spicy” or “exotic” for the rest of her class. “It was terrible, but it made sense then, ‘I can’t share because it will hurt someone else.’”Some of Camarena's duties include working with the Calistoga Board of Education, as well as local nonprofits and volunteer programs that serve students.

Reflecting on this memory, Camarena imagines that her teacher had good intentions, perhaps thinking she had been protecting other students from harm, like a food allergy. The effects of this experience and others gave Camarena a goal to do whatever she could to ensure that other individuals who felt marginalized had a mentor or role model that empowered them.  

At UW Tacoma, Camarena majored in Ethnic, Gender, and Labor studies. “It covered the parts of history that are left out of the textbooks,” she said. She was curious, why one group of people hold power over another, often asking, “Why, and how come?” It was in this inquiry she thought back to her own experiences of marginalization and considered how she could use those experiences to enrich the lives of others.

Camarena went to school in more rural areas and believes she can relate to the needs and difficulties that students in small towns, like Calistoga, may face.  “I wanted to go to Calistoga because it's an area that really needed help,” she said. “I expect it to be very challenging but also a great opportunity.”

Following Camarena’s contract, she plans to return to Washington to earn her teaching certification after which she ideally would like to teach second grade. She hopes to implement her experience with AmeriCorps to create the most supportive environment that she can in order to encourage student success.

She hopes to also plant the seeds of inquiry in young minds so that when they go out into the world they may also ask, “Why, and how come?” a question she believes can help youth to see the hurdles they will face and ultimately overcome them.  

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Written by: 
Zak Kaletka  / September 2, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu