Educators of Color Make a Difference on Campus and in the Community
Some of the graduating members of the Educators of Color club (left to right): Gloria Sevilla;
Cecilia Guzman, president; Manuela Cruz, vice president; Francisca Camarillo, secretary.
It started with liberal studies student Cecilia Guzmán handing out 70 backpacks full of school supplies to farmworkers in Oceano. Now, Cal Poly’s Educators of Color Club has completed a successful toy and book drive and received an award for community service from Cal Poly and the city and county of San Luis Obispo.
The club’s achievements stem from its core mission: building a community and helping each other thrive. That’s not always easy at a predominantly white institution (PWI) where club members’ experiences and backgrounds sometimes aren’t valued.
“I felt like I didn’t fit in,” said Manuela Cruz, the club’s vice president and a liberal studies transfer student of indigenous Oaxacan heritage. “Seeing my peers who are going into education, I thought I didn’t look like a teacher. How am I going to be a good teacher when I don’t even look like one? I felt this way because I never had a teacher who looked like me, someone who I could see myself in.
“When the club was formed, I was really happy because I was able to see other students who were on the same path. We were able to communicate with each other about our struggles and hopes.”
Research shows that a feeling of belonging is critical to success for all college students and is more difficult for students of color to find at historically white institutions.
“Affinity groups are important for college success,” said Amanda Frye, a liberal studies professor and club co-advisor. “Research around students of color at primarily white institutions shows affinity groups are mentally and emotionally healthy for these students. It’s good for GPA and graduation rates and longer term outcomes.”
Guzmán founded the club after taking a course on teachers of color, taught by Professor Oscar Navarro, then in Cal Poly’s School of Education. The class helped Guzmán understand something she was already experiencing — the difficulties and opportunities that come with being one of only a few educators of color.
That understanding was so helpful to Guzman that she wanted to do what all good educators do — share what she learned with others. The club is open to all undergraduate, credential and graduate students pursuing a career in education and is dedicated to building an inclusive community where aspiring educators of color belong and thrive.
“I had so many great leaders to look up to, and I wanted to give support to other students,” Guzmán said.
As future educators, club members see themselves not only as teachers in the classroom but also as social justice leaders within the larger community. This holistic view inspired them to reach out over the holidays with a toy and book drive for the children of farmworkers in the Santa Maria area.
Some of the club members grew up in the farming community and experienced years with no Christmas presents because their parents couldn’t afford gifts. They also saw how the pandemic was taking a financial toll on the community. They knew that toys and books featuring children of color would provide a bright spot for their future students.
For club treasurer and math major Kenji Kurose, this project and others like it are part of being a teacher. “We want to teach because you see yourself in these younger kids, and you want to see them grow and be successful because you’ve been given the privilege to be successful,” he said. “We’re all here to make a difference. Being in this club invigorates my drive. The other club members motivate me every day to be a stronger teacher, and they remind me why I’m here.”
Club members acknowledge that it’s often not easy to be a person of color on campus. But Cal Poly is also the place where they find inspiration and hope.
“It’s a place where you’re able to envision yourself as who you aspire to be,” said Francisca Camarillo, club secretary and a liberal studies transfer student. “It’s that place even though it’s PWI and you’re the only brown person there if you go to Chick-Fil-A. I’m grateful I was able to get accepted to Cal Poly. I do belong here and so do many other students who come after us.”
For education Professor Tina Cheuk, the importance of these students to the state and nation is immense.
“I get so excited,” said Cheuk, the club’s co-advisor. “These young people are our future. These are the teachers who will be in the schools and may teach my daughter. I’m hopeful knowing that I get to work with such amazing students. I’m hopeful for the future.”