Perez struggled to receive his teaching license as an undocumented immigrant and now is happy to shine a light of hope for his students.
Today, Juan Carlos Perez ’07, M.A. ’08, is an Algebra II teacher at the International High School at Union Square, a New York City public school with a student body composed exclusively of new immigrants. But for many years, it seemed his dream of becoming a teacher might never be realized.
Perez came to the United States from Mexico as an 11-year-old with his mother and brother. He worked hard as a student at the International High School at LaGuardia Community College, and was accepted into LaGuardia’s Honors College and from there into Adelphi’s Honors College.
Because Perez was an undocumented immigrant, he didn’t qualify for financial aid or grants. Fortunately, Adelphi offered him a Trustee Scholarship that enabled him to attend. “I got my scholarship letter a couple of days before the holiday break,” he said. “That was the best Christmas present!”
Perez quickly found his way to Adelphi’s Scholar Teacher Education Program (STEP), a five-year bachelor’s and master’s in education combined program. His goal from the start was to teach in a New York City public school, specifically in an international school like the one he had attended.
“The school gave me so much support,” Perez explained. “I knew without that support and help, I probably wouldn’t have made it to Adelphi, so I felt like that was a way I could pay back everything they did and be able to help other students push through and overcome obstacles.”
STEP allowed Perez to choose schools for classroom observations and visits, and he took every opportunity to build connections with the International Schools network. “I got to meet some of the principals and the teachers, so I was able to create relationships, not only with the school that I graduated from but with some of the staff at other schools,” he said.
Along the way, Perez said, Eva Roca, the director of Adelphi’s TESOL Bilingual Program, offered support. “She was really key,” he said. She helped Perez fulfill the requirements for both a math and TESOL certification, but there was more than that. “She knew part of my situation, so she was someone I could always turn to when I was struggling or trying to figure things out.”
Perez knew that because of his immigration status, licensing would be a challenge. When he started Adelphi’s STEP, he said, “My hope was that by the time I finish, maybe by then things will be different and I can start working.”
But five years passed with no change. After completing his student teaching and graduating with a B.A. in Mathematics and an M.A. in Education, Perez took a job as a busboy, and then moved on to promotions for a car service company. To keep his teaching skills fresh, he volunteered as an ESL teacher for adults.
Finally, a new ruling by the Obama Administration in 2012 allowed Perez to apply for a teaching license. He contacted Adelphi, submitted his paperwork and held his breath. In March 2013, his certification came through.
The International School at Union Square immediately hired him to work as a substitute teacher and as support staff, pushing into math classrooms and working with small groups of students. The school had an opening for a math teacher in the coming school year, and in Fall 2013, Perez at last had a classroom of his own.
An additional ruling by New York State, which went into effect in 2016, further shored up Perez’s certification, securing his future.
Perez said he is thrilled to be teaching math to a classroom of eager high school juniors, but above all, he is happy to shine a light of hope for his students. Recently, one of his students told him, “‘Now I know it can be done. You did it, so we can do it too.’ That pushes me.”
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