A group of eight soon-to-be graduates gather outside of PV107, vibrant colors peeking out from beneath the navy blue of their graduation robes. They pass anxious smiles from one to the next, sharing in the laughs and memories that brought them along their unexpected journey to graduating with Master of Science in Education (M.S.Ed.) degrees from Corban University. They rearrange their caps, brushing graduation tassels out of their faces as they line up for one final group photo—the cumulative expression of an unimagined dream now realized.
In 2016, this tight-knit group of graduates began their journey as instructional assistants for the Salem-Keizer School District (SKSD), hardly dreaming of becoming full-time classroom teachers, let alone securing master’s degrees. Their journey is an improbable testament to their perseverance and dedication to making a difference.
“To be honest, I never thought I’d be here,” says Maricruz Reyes Munoz, a fourth-grade teacher at nearby Bush Elementary School. “It feels pretty unreal. Out of high school, I was not even planning to go to college at all. So, being here and getting a master’s is crazy. It’s emotional.”
Originally identified for their strength as dual-language professionals, SKSD decided to send them back to school to become fully-licensed teachers. The university program the district hand-picked for this job was Corban’s. Corban’s School of Education quickly and creatively accommodated the district’s request, creating the first “Bilingual Cohort” and sending them through Corban’s one-year Graduate Teacher Licensure program and teaching practicum.
The success of the initial cohort of 13 was so evident that not only were all members hired by the school district as full-time teachers after completing Corban’s licensure program, but SKSD decided to send them back to complete their ESOL endorsement, while also sending another cohort of 11 for licensure. Once again, Corban found a way to accommodate and support the district’s vision, restructuring the ESOL program under the direction of Assistant Professor of Education, Alexis Mendez.
For Mendez, the opportunity was a no-brainer. “I was fully invested when this came up,” she says. “I knew that these were the teachers I wanted to be working with.” As a former bilingual educator whose children have grown up in bilingual schools, Mendez sees the inherent and critical value of maintaining and strengthening bilingual education offerings. “For the last ten years, there’s been a shortage of bilingual educators, and that has only increased in the last few years,” she says. “Corban saw that need and we felt like we had an opportunity to help. We have a really strong relationship with the Salem-Keizer School District.”
It was at this point that Dr. Aaron Imig, Dean of the School of Education, and his Corban colleagues decided to sit down and crunch the numbers on their cohort’s credit hours. “We put our heads together and realized, with all of their combined credits, they were four classes short of a master’s.” Dr. Imig remembers presenting this information to a room of shocked students, many of whom were first-generation college graduates who had never dreamed of earning a master’s degree.
“We couldn’t believe it,” says Pedro Espinoza Gomez, a kindergarten teacher at Chavez Elementary School. The cohort had already become virtually inseparable, making decisions cumulatively, and encouraging each other along the way. “We kind of pressured each other into doing it,” Reyes Munoz laughs. Fellow Chavez teacher, Claudia Garibay agrees. “Maricruz and I worked together at the time, and I told her, ‘Maricruz, we are going to do this. You will thank me later.’”
In total, 13 students decided to pursue their M.S.Ed., with all of them on track to complete their degree through Corban. For the eight teachers graduating this year, they have never looked back on their group decision with regret. If anything, it has helped to shape their approach in the classroom and galvanize their purpose as bilingual educators. “To inspire and motivate low-income students and students of color, like myself, has been the focus,” says America Hueramo Fuentes, a first-grade teacher at Harritt Elementary. “They will see themselves in us and have someone that looks like them to look up to. For all of us, we saw someone like us in the school system who inspired us. Even with Professor Mendez and our Corban professors, we look up to them and are motivated by them.”
In their Corban classes, they were carefully guided along their journey to becoming professional educators, receiving personalized instruction and hand-crafted courses that met their unique needs and equipped them to meet the needs of the community. “Our Corban professors were role models of what it means to be educators because they were with us every step of the way,” Reyes Munoz says. “I never felt like I was going to fail or be left behind.”
It’s a model they have been able to project to the students in their classrooms, many of whom struggle to see their inherent value or possible future within the school system. The cohort’s participation in Corban’s M.S.Ed. program has led to increasing conversations about educational possibilities for their students. “I often have students that come to me and say, ‘My parents never went to college,’ and I can encourage them by saying, ‘Mine didn’t either. But if I can do this, one day you will be doing this too,’” Garibay says.
Value and representation have become critical for second-language learners and the bilingual education landscape. And Corban’s education faculty see it as an opportunity to further the University’s mission by training and equipping educators to reach an often under-served population in our communities. “If we want to make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ, we can’t just do it in English,” Mendez says. “The biblical worldview that Corban is invested in instilling in our students so closely aligns with bilingual education and second-language learning. It helps us to meet people where they are at. When we speak someone’s language, how much more are we able to meet their needs and understand their perspectives?”
This purposeful approach was an immediate advantage for the Bilingual Cohort. “Corban saw us as assets for the education world,” says Espinoza Gomez. “We bring something positive to the table.” Through their ESOL endorsement classes, Corban leaned into the natural strengths of their students’ first-language abilities, seeing the inherent value in their diverse skillsets.
The benefits of bilingual education are well documented in educational research and recognized every day in practice in each of the cohort members’ classrooms. “When we allow students to also engage in learning through their primary language, they can see themselves in the classroom,” says Ruth Ochoa Olivares, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Grant Elementary. “They can see themselves in the professional world when they can see a person of color, speaking the same language, up in front of them.”
The dividends of Corban’s Bilingual Cohort and their efforts with the district are already being felt within Corban’s School of Education, pouring back into their undergraduate program. “It’s come full circle,” says Imig. “Looking at Chavez Elementary School, for example, that’s a clinical partner school with us. We put four student teachers there every year, and now we have three full-time bilingual teachers in that building, and we have graduates that are now spread over the district that are hosting our student teachers.”
Corban’s first Bilingual Cohort has set the stage for more growth and development in bilingual educational offerings in our community. They are equipped to meet the growing needs of our diverse communities, all while giving back to the individuals and institutions that have helped them along their journey. “Honoring a student’s roots and their individual personhood and recognizing the value of their background is critical to their success,” says Hueramo Fuentes. “We need to keep students’ cultures represented within the school system, help them keep their authenticity, and make sure their first language is valued and represented.”
As each student crossed the Psalm Center stage during graduation, equipped with a master’s degree from Corban University to step further into their calling, they were celebrated by Professor Mendez in their native language as she slipped each degree hood over their heads. Looking back on their journey together, each graduate expresses a mixture of disbelief, accomplishment, and excitement for the future. It’s a feeling that is shared by Corban’s education faculty.
“It’s been an exponential growth of something that we had no idea of back when we started the bilingual program,” says Imig. “At first, we were helping Salem-Keizer because we could, but how it grew from one thing to the next, seeing how our students all came through that process, that journey, that story of being an IA in Salem-Keizer in 2016 to now walking across the stage with a master’s degree in education from Corban University, is a pretty special moment.”