Filipino teacher honored by White House, LA City Hall

LOS ANGELES – In high school, Jaime Ballesteros didn’t think he would be able to attend college because of his undocumented status.

Originally from Bacolod City, Philippines, Ballesteros was 11 years old when his family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey after his father obtained a temporary work visa for an accounting job.

However, when the recession hit, Ballesteros’s father lost his job and the visa.

“Overnight my family became undocumented,” Ballesteros shared. “I never really knew how to deal with it until I opened up to my teacher during the junior year of high school.”

He kept his undocumented status a secret at first, but eventually confided in his English teacher, Ms. Solberg, who helped him research colleges that could offer merit scholarships for undocumented students. Ballesteros went on to Drew University, a liberal arts college in New Jersey that granted him a scholarship.

During his junior year in college, his mom encouraged him to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that President Obama announced in 2012, and he was approved to live and work in the US legally.

Since it was introduced, more than 660,000 people have received DACA, according to the White House.

“Applying to DACA is very personal. A lot of immigrants may be scared of coming out of the shad- ows because of the repercus- sions that may come with it. But personally, I feel that DACA has changed the way that I engage every day — I can drive, I can work, I can do all these amazing things I wouldn’t have been able to do without a social security number or a driver’s license…it has impacted me on a positive way,” Ballesteros said. “I definitely recommend that if you are eligible for DACA to pursue it because I don’t think there are negative repercussions from applying and trying.”

Becoming a DACAmented teacher

Ballesteros, who graduated from Drew University in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in art history and a minor in chemistry, originally intended to go to medical school. But the reality of his status made him recognize that he wouldn’t be able to live out that plan.

With Ms. Holberg and how she impacted his educational career in the back of his mind, he decided to delve into teaching.

“…I changed my path in my senior year when I thought back to Ms. Holberg and what she did for me. I joined Teach for America soon after graduating from college,” Ballesteros said.

Sharing how he “wanted to be civically engaged but didn’t know how to do that while being undocumented,” Ballesteros came across Teach for America (TFA) again in college when a friend applied, and saw that the program was accepting corp members who are DACA recipients.

TFA first accepted two “DACAmented” teachers into the program in 2013, and 44 teachers were placed in 10 regions across the country the following year. To date, over 90 DACAmented teachers are working in 13 regions, according to the organization’s website. Among the areas where the organization has partnerships with schools to hire these teachers are the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.

“TFA-Los Angeles has the largest number of DACAmented corp members in the country across our 52 regions and mainly because when we heard about the opportunity to have DACAmented corp members, we were able to call Los Angeles Unified School District and our big charter partners and say ‘will you hire our teachers? will you support this initiative?’ and all of them across Los Angeles said yes. We have tremendous support from our partners…we’re able to bring in all kinds of folks, like Jaime, as possible because we believe so deeply in his story, in him and the children who have the same experience,” said TFA-LA Executive Director Lida Jennings.

For DACA recipients to be considered for TFA, they must have at least a 2.50 undergraduate GPA, a bachelor’s degree, a social security number and an Employment Authorization Document to meet the hiring requirements of partner schools. TFA also helps corp members with legal assistance if needed.

Ballesteros is now entering his second year as a high school chemistry teacher for Animo College Preparatory Academy, a public charter school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Since it’s an inner-city school, Ballesteros said he tries to be positive and engaging in the classroom, noting that some of students may not come from “healthy backgrounds.”

“Throughout my first year, I found out that the key to me being able to make a great impact in the classroom is making strong individual relationships with my students…I pride myself in knowing the strengths of my students and what they need to improve on—that really guides me when I’m planning my lessons and teaching in class,” Ballesteros said.

Similar to how Ms. Holberg took an interest in him despite his immigration status, the 23-year-old teacher intends to do the same with his students.

“In sharing my story with some of my students, they’ve also told me that they themselves are undocumented,” he said. “I’ve been working with them to look for different colleges and scholarships they can apply to so that’s definitely been a powerful experience to do what my teacher did for me back in high school.”

At Animo, about 80 percent of the students are Latino, and many of his students are undocumented or have family members who are.

“Jaime represents a commitment that we as an organization have made to bring teachers to match the backgrounds of our students. This is a more personal story behind that, but we are bringing in a more diverse corp and we’re proud to say that our students are being taught by people that look like them and come from the same background. It’s a commitment we’re going to continue see through,” Leandro Otero, director of external affairs and partnerships for TFA-LA said.

Though he is in a unique position to connect with his students on a more personal level, Ballesteros shared that other teachers may not be aware of how to handle undocumented students.

“[Teachers] should inform themselves of the struggles that undocumented students face and the solutions that are available for these students. It’s not enough to tell the students that they need to work hard. I think teachers need to provide actionable solutions to students,” he said.

Champion of change

In July, nine educators who have received DACA were honored by the White House as “Champions of Change.”

“This event honored nine young leaders in the field of education that are also DACA recipients, who have been strong role models for students and families, as well as change agents within their communities,” the White House said in a statement.

Among the nine was Ballesteros, who flew out to DC for an awards ceremony for the leaders and a convening of DACAmented teachers hosted by TFA. The DACA-recipient teachers also spoke on a panel about their experiences and pathways into teaching.

“It was definitely a very surreal experience. As someone who is undocumented, I never thought I would have been honored at the White House or even step foot in [there]. After finishing my first year—which as any first-year teacher knows is a great feat—it was almost like a victory lap for me for my efforts to be recognized,” Ballesteros recalled.

Since joining TFA, the recognitions for Ballesteros haven’t stopped there.

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, the City of Los Angeles presented a certificate to Ballesteros in an intimate ceremony.

“This is a such a big honor for me, especially just moving to LA and just starting my second year in teaching,” he said.

In addition to teaching, Ballesteros is currently pursuing a master’s degree in urban education at Loyola Marymount University and hopes to shape education policy in the future.

“I plan on staying in the classroom as long as I can and making a career out of education. Eventually, way into the future, I see myself making an impact on education policy because I feel that as a teacher, I have control on the impact that I could make on the 120 students that go through my classroom each day. As I gain more experience, I want a broader impact on my students,” he said.

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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