A Little Guatemala in the Heart of Burke County

1:20 pm on Fridays is one of my most favorite times of the day in this job. 1:20 is the start of fourth period and when I get to visit the English-Learning Lab. At the beginning of the school year, all the seniors were required to schedule a meeting with me, and as I conducted those meetings in September, I kept hitting a roadblock in assisting my EL students. Of course, most first meetings with a “stranger” come with quirks and awkwardness, but I am still able to communicate with my students. However, with my EL students, we were forced to communicate through translation apps on our phones. I minored in Spanish in college but, personally, being in a new job environment, I was not confident enough to speak Spanish with students. I could often tell that my students had the same feeling of insecurity when it came to practicing their English with me. This never stopped them from asking questions and yearning to further their education after high school, but I knew there had to be a better way to overcome the language barrier we shared with each other. My site facilitator, the assistant principal, and I put our heads together to figure out a time when I could be supported by a translator and also visit students in a space that feels like their own. So now most weeks I visit the English-Learning Lab or host these students in the media center to assist them with their postsecondary goals.

An advising session that sticks out to me the most was during college application season when I sat down with a few of my students to begin working on their college applications. One of them was writing a college essay, and the other was working on a community college application. I always encourage them to try writing and filling out applications by themselves and then I will look over it. I was simply overlooking their laptops pointing out questions they missed or telling them what the question was asking when the students naturally started asking me questions about my own college experiences. I then asked, “What do you want to major in?” But I got some confused looks and rephrased, “What do you want to study and learn about?” More confused looks followed and the translator was nowhere to be found. Without missing a beat I asked “¿Qué quieres estudiar en la universidad?” which was followed by “Oooooh” and less confused but more surprised looks. My students said, “Ms. Allison you could speak Spanish this whole time!?” I said, “sólo un poco de español, I only know a little but it is fun to practice.” We proceeded to have a full conversation laughing and talking about our favorite Latinx foods, singers, and how it felt to learn/practice a second language. They opened up so much to me about all the new things they have experienced in the United States. I gained so much new knowledge on what their lives were like living in Guatemala and the things they missed the most about their country. We spent the rest of our time listening to people like Bad Bunny and Natalia Lafourcade on Spotify while completing all their application materials. These are the connections we are making that I know will make a lasting impact, and now every time I walk into Ms. Abee’s classroom, I am greeted with excited voices calling “Ms. Allison!” and telling me all the things they have been working on. 

Freedom High School’s seniors are 27% Latinx with a larger portion of those students being first-generation undocumented students that immigrated from Guatemala. The pathway to postsecondary education contains many barriers for these students. Oftentimes, these students only have the option to attend community college because of the financial barriers presented by law and policies that gatekeep 4-year universities from undocumented students. College Advising Corps and Appalachian State are always trying to stimulate equitable resources and I will always be trying to advocate for this in my advising and for my students. So, every one of those hills they overcome is cause for celebration. As I was writing this, I was reminiscing back to my undergraduate studies in Global Health thinking I would be traveling the world learning about different Latinx cultures, but I didn’t have to go far to find myself a little Guatemala in the heart of Burke County. 

Perspective Written by Allison Montgomery, Freedom High School adviser

Published: Jan 28, 2022 4:11pm