On Saturday, as she prepares to cross the platform and receive her degree in Early Childhood Education, Mlrta Xitumul will look out across the University Quadrangle and see more than a sea of white chairs, filled with friends and families of the graduates.
The 49-year-old native of Guatemala will think of her own family, certainly.
Her thoughts will also drift to members of what has become her extended University of Nevada, Reno family – to faces of a special group of women who, over the past four years, have encouraged Xitumul every step of the way.
“Without them,” she said recently, “I could not have done this. I’ve tried (college) before and for a number of reasons could not get to this point. Now I’m here. I couldn’t have done it without their support.”
Four years ago, Eva Essa, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Education, gathered eight women who were teachers in the local Head Start Program. Essa had just received word that the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., had awarded her funding for a five-year program to support a group of Hispanic Head Start teachers in attaining their college degrees.
Head Start is a national program that promotes school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of children through the provision of educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to enrolled children and families.
Among them was Xitumul. Her degree in Early Childhood Education is the culmination of a series of support meetings the group has convened, almost from the beginning of the program. She has had to balance work, family and coursework. When she came to America 14 years ago, obtaining a college degree seemed about as far removed from her life as the country she had just left.
“This group of women has struggled and faced many challenges in this quest, but they have persevered and are progressing toward their goals,” said Essa, who added that in 40 years as an educator, few groups of students have had as personal of an impact on her as this group of women. She notes that two of the women in the group have had babies since the start of the grant and most of them have faced personal challenges. A few have had more than their share of doubts; none, though, have given in to those doubts.
“When they first came to our campus, they were intimidated and awed by this new environment,” Essa said. “But they found that they have much to offer because of their unique backgrounds and experiences.
“Several are haunted by cultural and gender messages that they have heard all of their lives about topics like mathematics. But they have continued to face their fears, work with tutors, and are getting through the required classes. Overall, it has been a wonderful experience for all of us, including me as I’ve watched this group gain in confidence, excitement, determination and strength.”
One of the group’s members, Maria Brannum, is considered the “shepherdess” of the group. The hard-working, extremely organized 53-year-old mother of three likened the process to having a series of balls in the air. Depending on the situation, she said with a smile, you balance family, or school, or work – and somehow manage to deftly keep all of the balls in the air.
“A lot of it has had to do with prioritizing and sacrificing,” she said. “There are a lot of sacrifices. But it’s all been worth it. One of the greatest messages we’ve received from this program is that although we are all different, we are all special … we’re all unique with special talents.”
Reena Arias, 20, is the youngest member of the group. The fulltime student at the University had served as a substitute teacher in the Head Start Program. She said having a group to share experiences with – whether those experiences are in the classroom, or as a young Latina in an ever-changing world – has played an instrumental role in her success as a person and as a student.
“I came to the University from Las Vegas, without a lot of friends,” she said. “This group of women has become my family, and Dr. Essa been so friendly, and so supportive. Really and truly, along with the children we have in Head Start, this group has been my inspiration.”
Essa said it will be difficult to not get emotional on Saturday. She will think of all of the women who continue to be a part of the program, from Brannum’s ability to gather the group to Arias’ zest for her Head Start students.
She will think, too, of:
Elizabeth Aranda – “She’s like a rock, a simply wonderful, very responsible, caring person,” Essa said;
Elsa Farias – who had earned a teaching-related degree in Mexico and now, thanks to the program, is one class and a thesis removed from achieving her master’s degree;
Viviana Gonzalez – one of the great success stories of the program, who wasn’t immediately accepted into the program until she took full course loads of 12 credits for several semesters. “And saying,” Essa added, “I can do this”;
Maritza Herrera – who has prospered in the program while working diligently on her English language skills;
Laura Lopez – “The social bee … a great organizer and great at pulling things together,” Essa said.
And when Essa sees Xitumul receive her degree from College of Education Dean William Sparkman and President Milton Glick on Saturday, Essa said, “I’ll probably cry. It’s been an emotional journey for all of them, as well as for me. I realize how hard these women have worked and how much of themselves they’ve put into it.”
Essa added that the success of the program could not have been possible without the support of Leah Sanders, the designated mentor for the participants, and the administrators of Head Start, who have arranged schedules and re-arranged schedules so the teachers could attend classes at the University.
For Xitumul, who hopes to perhaps write children’s books in the near future, Saturday’s ceremony will be anything but a final act. When she walks across the platform, the hopes and dreams of seven other women will accompany her every step.
“Before, when we’ve seen those white chairs (on the Quad), Dr. Essa has told us, ‘One day you’ll be in that place,” she said, noting that she fully expects all of her classmates to soon graduate as well. “It’s exciting to know that (on Saturday) I will be in that moment. I will be extremely proud to be there. I will think of my mom, my dad, my children, my friends … and these women. They will be there with me.”