Univision Spotlights E4E Teacher to Inspire More Students to Join the Teaching Profession
The following is an excerpt from Univision’s profile of E4E-Boston member and Student Support Counselor Antonelli Mejía by Juliana Jiménez as part of their Nuestros Maestros Campaign. Click here to read the full story.
From immigrant student with only a smattering of English to bilingual student leader and counselor
Antonelli Mejía was 16 years old when he arrived in the United States. He soon realized that as an ELL, or English Language Learner, he did not have the same opportunities as his classmates. This inspired him to teach immigrant children, and today he harnesses his experience during that difficult time to connect with his students and offer them the academic and emotional support that they sorely need.
When Antonelli Mejía moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 16, he soon became aware that his education was deeply unequal, and did not give him access to the same opportunities as other students. He attended Brighton High School in Boston, Massachusetts, where due to his limited English skills he was designated an ELL (English Language Learner) and not permitted to move into the next grade. Having experienced this disparity in opportunities inspired him to become a teacher for ELL students, having been one himself.
Today, his past resonates with his students at Fenway High School in Boston, and helps him to educate the entire student body, by focusing on their needs, whether academic, social or emotional. His passion for teaching all students spurred him on to become a Student Support Counselor at his school, a chance to connect more meaningfully with his students and their families.
His colleagues at and outside the school agree that Mejía is a fine role model for the Latino community. Educators for Excellence, an organization dedicated to elevating the teaching profession that Mejía belongs to, nominated him because throughout the process he “never forgot his roots” and set up a non-profit organization named Herramientas del Saber (Tools of Knowledge), to provide school supplies and clothes to the most underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic.
“He is passionate about working for his students, their families and the community,” the organization said when nominating him, and “this is reflected in his words and actions every day.”
When and how did you decide to become a teacher?
Since I was a child I have known that education is extremely important and the only thing that no one can take away from you. I have therefore worked hard to succeed and be better every day. In college I was able to take part in a program in which a group of students travelled to the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, for a week’s community service with students. That trip changed my life, as it enabled me to perceive the reality of my country from another perspective, and analyze the educational system. That fascinated me, and instilled in me a passion for education and social justice. I decided to learn more about the reality of the educational system in my community.
Tell us about the process that you went through to become a teacher.
I emigrated to the United State when I was 16 years old. It was a tough process for me, as in addition to having to adapt to a new country and culture, I had to learn a foreign language in order to pursue my studies. In high school, I had to repeat the eleventh grade. I did not know how to speak English, and had to work harder than ever before, because I only had one year to pass all the academic exams that were necessary to graduate.
In 2010, I decided to attend a public college because I did not believe that I was at the level to be admitted to a private university. Thankfully, I was able to transfer to Boston College after a year, with a scholarship to finance my studies. I studied Psychology and Human Resources. Through those subjects I was able to study human behavior and learn how to help others.
During my studies, I had to work full time to support my family and purchase my books. This was one of the most challenging periods of my life, because though I graduated with honors after three years, it was difficult to be a Latino in a field in which the majority of students were not.
I began to work with students who, like me, were learning English as a second language. This work became personal, as I wanted to offer my students the resources that I lacked when I first arrived in the country. I finally completed a masters’ degree in Education at Boston University in 2016.
Why do you believe that it is important to have Latino teachers like yourself in classrooms?
There are currently very few members of the Latino community in leadership positions in schools. We need to empower all our young people to become the leaders of the future, and increase our presence in schools.
I believe that it is important that our children have the opportunity to work in the classroom with people with whom they can relate to, and see an example of success and a role model. In my opinion, our children do not always have access to the same resources or possibilities as other students, and this is an integral part of the problem.
What have you learned as a teacher, from your students?
My experience as a teacher has made this profession very personal for me. Since I graduated from college I have worked with students of a variety of ages and their family members, and I have discovered that the needs and problems affecting their communities – no matter which community – have an impact on my students too. As a result, from the outset I realized that I had to approach this profession with responsibility, commitment and dedication. Every day I learn new things from my students, and I believe that this makes it a truly special profession.
What is the most satisfying aspect of working in education?
Education in a human right, and we all have the right to quality education, regardless of our race or skin color. It is an honor to work in schools, teach students from different countries and have the opportunity to assist their families. This means that on a daily basis I can contribute a little more to developing and training the next generation of leaders, which is highly rewarding as a teacher.
Every day my students struggle to improve and give more of themselves. I can witness how significantly they change and progress over time. They are a constant inspiration and motivation to give the best of myself and improve myself for them.
Tell us an anecdote about a student with whom you felt that you connected, or were a positive influence.
I am also the trainer of the school’s student debate team. I will always remember the day that my students participated in a debating tournament with several other schools. They were all very nervous, and did not believe that they could succeed, but I had always believed in them, and knew that they were very good and possessed all the qualities to perform very well.
At the beginning of the round they were all worried, but as the tournament progressed they realized the power of their own voices, and how their ideas could persuade others. At the end of the day, some of my students were selected as the best speakers of the competition for their expressive abilities and arguments. They were astonished, and understood that they could succeed and achieve all their goals; they only had to work hard and dedicate themselves to their education.
What do you do outside the classroom to help your students?
I have always aimed to help my students and their families beyond my duties in the classroom. The factors outside the school that affect my students also have an impact on me. Consequently, I always strive to establish a relationship of trust with each of them, so that they feel comfortable in our environment. I try to learn more about their personal history and dreams. I believe that this helps me to know them better and identify ways of helping them outside the classroom.
For example, I always look for opportunities for them to participate in extracurricular activities and other academic programs, take university-level classes and even work after school to help their parents.
I have also worked with organizations including Educators for Excellence, to learn more about the problems in my community and obtain the tools required to make the appropriate changes to help our students. This work has been successful, as it has served as a platform to not only learn, but also spark conversations with the people in positions of power who can make these changes in our educational system.
I also set up a non-profit foundation to help the most underprivileged children in the Dominican Republic, called Fundación Herramientas del Saber. Our mission is to help these children gain access to a quality education. Every year we take school supplies and donations to the school and work with them. You can find out more on our website: http://www.fundacionherramientasdelsaber.org/.
We focus on offering assistance with a real purpose, therefore we try to work with the students to show that they are capable of many positive things, and that by working hard they can achieve any goal that they set for themselves.