Their dreams of educational greatness started on the border, and converged on the campus of MSU
By Nicole Geary
Jessica Gonzalez and Madeline Mavrogordato are two Spartans living their dreams.
Jessica is a senior at Michigan State University on her way to becoming the first in her family to graduate from college. Her heart is set on returning home to help others do the same.
Maddy is contributing research that could improve opportunities for thousands of students in U.S. schools, especially those who are bilingual and immigrants. She is an assistant professor of K-12 educational administration in the College of Education.
Twelve years ago, Maddy was starting her career as an educator in elementary school classrooms along the U.S.-Mexico border. She had requested that Teach for America place her in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, where she could make use of her fluent Spanish skills.
She saw most of the children she would teach lived in poverty that many people in the United States don’t think exists.
That’s when she met Jessica.
MAKING A MISSION
She was 8 years old and full of spirit.
Like most of her classmates that year, Jessica and her family got to know Maddy. The white woman from outside Washington, D.C. made it a priority to visit her students’ homes in Mission, Texas. As an outsider, Maddy knew it was important to build trust with Latino community members and cultivate strong relationships with her students’ families.
A former political science major, Maddy said the experience teaching bilingual third- and fourth-graders prompted her to think in a completely different way.
“More than anything, what I came away really understanding is, kids are kids wherever you go. They are energetic and eager to learn, no matter what their background is. But I felt like the school system was not set up with kids in mind.”
When she left, reluctantly, two years later to join her fiancé in northern California, she was “like a woman on a mission,” looking for a longer-term path to change not only how schools serve underprivileged children, but the policies that govern them.
And, thanks to the warmth of the Gonzalez family, she had cemented a connection with Jessica. When Maddy went back every two to three years to see her former students, she always spent time with Jessica. Jessica called her on holidays. They shared major milestones, including Jessica’s quinceañera—her fifteenth birthday—at which Maddy had the honor of being one of Jessica’s madrinas, a role similar to a godmother.
While Jessica was growing up, Maddy was becoming a scholar.
She taught for one year at the East Palo Alto Charter School in northern California before she applied to graduate school, accepting an offer from Vanderbilt University. Maddy skipped the master’s degree and earned her doctorate in leadership and policy studies.
Using the power of data, she began exploring questions that had plagued her as a teacher, like how young English learners are reclassified by their schools (see page 30). Some of the foremost researchers in educational leadership and policy were her instructors.
“That’s when I learned that if you do excellent rigorous research, it becomes a lot more difficult for people to dismiss your work. Doing high-quality research became my way of pushing for positive change that would expand opportunities for our most underserved kids,” Maddy said.
DREAMING FOR REALITY
In her neighborhood, according to Jessica, it’s common for people to dismiss the idea that a young person should go to college, especially to a university on the other side of the country. There are too many barriers for many families, so students who attend college tend to commute.
Thankfully, Jessica’s parents, Norma, a housecleaner, and Rafael, a food vendor, have always been open-minded when it comes to their daughters’ futures. So when Jessica showed an interest in higher education, they contacted Maddy. Could she give some advice?
That began a whirlwind of conversations and college applications. Maddy, who had recently joined the faculty at MSU, took Jessica to visit schools in Michigan. She read every college application essay and helped cover many costs.
“I don’t know how to describe it. That was very eye-opening to me because no one had ever told me how it would work, and she was willing to do so much,” Jessica said.
“It was a huge undertaking,” Maddy agreed. “But it’s expertise I possess, so why not share it?”
Along the way, Jessica encountered many obstacles. When she asked a high school counselor for 10 official copies of her academic transcript, she was met with doubt: “Mi hija, you need to be realistic.”
“It’s like people were waiting for her to fail,” said Maddy.
Together, they persevered.
Jessica applied to 10 colleges across Texas and Michigan and was accepted into all but one.
She picked MSU.
As a member of the College Assistance Migrant Program Scholars Initiative (CAMP), Jessica was able to receive additional financial, social and academic support to help make the transition to college in her first year.
EDUCATIONAL AND CULTURAL CHANGE
And now, some 1,600 miles from the Rio Grande Valley, Maddy and Jessica often meet up on the MSU campus to talk about their aspirations for transforming educational opportunity.
They are both committed to young people in the nation’s fast-growing population of Latinx* students, each using a voice empowered by different life experiences.
As part of her growing research portfolio, Maddy recently found that schools in Texas—second only to California in total number of English learners (ELs)—vary widely in how they determine if students should be reclassified as English proficient, affecting their chances of success in school and beyond.
The ground-breaking study she completed with MSU graduate Rachel White (Ph.D. ’17, Education Policy) has implications for how educators across the nation actually implement policies for students learning English. This will become increasingly relevant because of changes in federal law now requiring all states to standardize how they identify and reclassify ELs.
Maddy is seeking answers at the heart of educational success for Latino families, such as how they decide where to attend school and why fewer of them choose charters. True to her roots in the field, she engages with families where they are and works to help educators understand their unique needs. She has provided professional development for Michigan school districts with a focus on engaging with immigrant parents, for example, and how to use English proficiency data to differentiate instruction for ELs.
“The whole reason I got into this gig is to make a difference. And I don’t think you can do that if all you’re doing is publishing in academic journals,” she said.
Ever brave, Jessica has been embracing all the university has to offer, from the Honors College to study abroad and her major, Social Relations and Policy in the James Madison College. Though she has faced plenty of her own challenges, she has helped fellow students navigate the stresses of college as an intercultural aide. In that program, run by the MSU Office of Cultural & Academic Transitions, she mentors several first-year students from underprivileged backgrounds—and many races and cultures—every week.
Choosing MSU, she says, “has been the best choice ever.”
“You get pushed to cross difference and you also build community while at it. I’ve gained so many different skills that are needed to connect with people.”
During her time at MSU, Jessica has been to California, Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Mexico, South Africa and Israel for internships and learning experiences. She plans to gain experience related to education policy in multiple settings.
But she has never lost sight of where she wants to be: influencing change back home in the Rio Grande Valley.
When she goes back to Texas every year, she goes to her old schools. She talks to the teachers to thank them for helping her grow, and asks the current high school students what they will do next. She advocates for her sister Berenice, a high school senior. She even attended a meeting with three teachers and their mom because she wanted to know why they weren’t encouraging Berenice to enroll in advanced classes.
Someday, she imagines, she could run for school board or become a district superintendent.
“Kids in the Valley are capable of doing anything they aspire to do, but schools need to do a better job sending messages to students, telling them that they can go to college, not just graduate from high school,” Jessica said.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to put into words how much of an impact Maddy has had on my life, and how grateful I am for her. Most importantly, she believed in my potential. Because I saw how much she invested in me, I want to do that for my community.”
* Latinx is a gender-neutral trerm used in place of Latino or Latina.
Read more about Jessica’s experiences at MSU: languages.celta.msu.edu/stories/jessica