Skip to Content

‘Giving up is never an option’

Monday, July 16, 2018
A former English language learner who worked as a dishwasher while he learned the language, Garcia now oversees strategic partnerships for the Center for Equity in Learning at ACT.

This is a question-and answer with Juan Garcia, the keynote speaker for the Iowa Adult Education and Literacy Summer Conference, Educate and Elevate Iowa, which kicks off today at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) FFA Enrichment Center in Ankeny.

Garcia is assistant vice president of client relations with ACT Inc., a non-profit organization headquartered in Iowa City focused on solutions for K-12 education, college, and career readiness. In his role, he oversees the strategic partnerships for the Center for Equity in Learning at ACT. Garcia is a graduate of the University of Lima in Lima, Peru, the prestigious Harvard Business School Leadership Best Practices program, and Des Moines Area Community College’s English as a second language (ESL) program. A former English language learner, Garcia shares his own unique path and how his experience drives him to promote educational opportunities to ensure all students have the support they need to succeed.

Below, Garcia reflects on equity in education, focusing on obstacles, opportunity gaps and why we need to better serve the most vulnerable students.

Why is adult education important, and what impact has it had on your life?

Adult education is very important to individuals, communities, and our state as a whole because of the socioeconomic impact it has on every community. When you have an educated community it benefits everyone. Communities are better able to attract businesses. The state’s economy is strengthened and opportunities for residents to secure jobs with family-sustaining wages increases. As a parent of four children, I can say first-hand how learning as an adult impacts and motivates your children. Adult education impacts generations.

Juan Garcia with John King, president and CEO of The Education Trust, and former United States Secretary of Education.

I have a strong desire to pay it forward because of the opportunities that Iowa has given me. I was 18 when I first came to the United States and I didn’t know any English. Staying with my sister in southern California, I could get by without learning the language, so I moved to Iowa to stay with my grandmother and aunt to force myself to learn. I enrolled in the English Language Learner (ELL) program at the Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) Urban Campus.

How does your experience as a former ELL student help you when addressing barriers to education?

I can empathize with students. It wasn’t easy, things didn’t all fall into place, and it was a challenge to learn. When I walked in the door my first day I was the only Latino in my ELL class and I was ready to leave. I know that feeling of wanting to give up. But I also know the power of having people in your corner who want to see you succeed, who won’t let you give up and who make you believe that giving up is not an option. For me that came in the form of a strong family support system and an ELL instructor who believed in me.

At one particularly low point, my instructor pulled me aside and asked me what the alphabet looked like in Spanish. Then he told me to go to the break room and look around. He made me realize that I already had an advantage over students from countries who not only had to learn a new language, but an entirely foreign alphabet as well. My instructor made me realize that while the work was hard, it wasn’t impossible.

It took two years, but I finally was made it through the program and graduated.

In Washington, D.C. Garcia presented at the Close Up Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps young people develop skills and attitudes to become informed and engaged citizens.

How can we better address educational barriers for adult and ELL students?

We all need to better understand who our students are, what they need, and what we can do better to help. Adult students are often supporting families and they are trying to navigate an educational system that is foreign to them.

The best advice I have is to put yourself in your students’ shoes. For instance, I spoke last year at the Association of Community Colleges Trustees in Baltimore, MD. When talking to a group of community college presidents, I asked them when was the last time they had tried to register for a class at their own institutions as an adult learner. None of them had.

I told them to go back and do it and think about it through the lens of someone who doesn’t know or understand the system. Do it both online and manually because you will have students who don’t have computer access. Go through it to identify the points where an adult learner would give up. It’s eye-opening.

Juan Garcia speaking in Washington, D.C. at Capitol Hill during the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) advocacy days in April 2018.

What advice do you have for instructors as they teach and mentor students?

It is like being a parent, and it can be a thankless job. Students don’t always realize how you are trying to help them. Help them anyway. Afterwards they will realize everything you have done for them. It is hard to teach, be a life coach, mentor, motivator, and cheerleader. Do it anyway. You can help them realize their own power and that they can be their own advocates.

You make a difference more than you know. You are making an impact on individuals, families and just as importantly, you are making an impact in your communities. But as important as it is to give your best to your students, you need to be able to give your best at home too. You aren’t able to help anyone if you reach burnout. Taking care of yourself is an important part of the job.

As I always say: You already are someone’s hero…You may not know it, but they are already looking up to you…

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on September 29, 2020 at 3:37pm.