“Mr. Sal! Mr. Sal!” the fourth graders called out when Salvador Gomez walked into their classroom in Long Beach in late March. “I was surprised and happy they remembered me from last year,” Gomez says. A volunteer with the UW Pipeline Project, he returned to spend the 2014 spring break tutoring and mentoring grade school students from highly diverse backgrounds.
“Last year it took a whole week for the third graders to write a book sharing their stories — funny ones and heartbreakingly sad ones — and also their goals for the future,” Gomez says. “This spring they were so excited about it that they wrote the book in one day. Students who were shy last year were speaking up in class. How much they had grown up in one year was mind-blowing.”
And that experience crystallized his goal — to teach third-graders after he earns a masters’ degree in education. “Third grade is my year. I want to be a teacher who can help them make that big transition,” Gomez says.
Navigating such transitions also is a theme in his life. He was born Pasco and raised in the small town of Basin City, near the Tri Cities area, shortly after his parents and older siblings moved there from Mexico. In the summers he spent seven or eight hours a day picking fruit. “Being in the orchards with my dad gave me a perspective on the value of hard work. My mother enjoyed picking, which showed me her strength,” Gomez says. “I knew I wanted to get a good job someday so I could buy them the home they’ve always dreamed about.”
Until he was a high school junior, going to college was totally off the radar. He was a good student, though, and an Upward Bound program offered encouragement and the chance to get a look at several community colleges and universities, most close to home. He could have played it safe, but knew the UW was the right place as soon as he visited. “The environment where I grew up is dry, and when I saw all the bright colors and intriguing people I knew I wanted to come here and get lost in a big city,” Gomez says.
Right place, but initially off on the wrong track, Gomez found the transition to college was tough. He thought majoring in math or science would be the ticket to a good job, but he didn’t do well in those classes. He switched into the social sciences and psychology, but nothing clicked or stirred his passion and discouraged, he came close to dropping out.
In his sophomore year, volunteering for Jumpstart, a language and social skills enrichment program for underserved Seattle preschoolers, proved the beginning of a turnaround. “Three and four-year olds have such free and creative minds. They are full of energy and happiness and helped me value the small things in life,” Gomez says. “The four hours with them each week were fun and helped me move past the rough times,” Gomez says. While missing his own family, the volunteer program also gave him another home and a family.
An advisor’s suggestion that he take a Chicano studies class triggered the next transition. “That’s the first time at UW I went ‘Whoa!’ Gomez says. “I learned a lot about my culture. Until then I didn’t know what it meant to be a Mexican American because my parents and brothers were born in Mexico and that was the focus at home.” He also felt bad that his older siblings were struggling because they didn’t have the same educational opportunities. Whenever he thought about giving up at UW, he resolved to work harder.
AES associate professor Elizabeth Salas recognized his inherent teaching abilities and encouraged him to consider a career teaching American ethnic studies at the high school level. The final push to commit came during this spring’s Pipeline Project experience when he led a team of four other UW undergrads in planning and conducting the weeklong program. “They were passionate about teaching and pushed me to my limits to decide what to do with my life,” Gomez says. “They taught me things about myself I didn’t know before. Now I see how much teaching matters to me and the difference it makes to others.”
After he graduates next year with a major in AES and minor in Spanish, Gomez will set his sights on the masters’ degree, a first job in a third-grader classroom, and eventually moving up to the high school level. Amazing how a mentor here, a suggestion there, taking risks, taking on volunteer work, and learning from every experience and person, even 3-year-olds, can lead to self-discovery, the way out of tough times, and a life’s calling.
Read more about Gomez’s Pipeline experience: http://www.washington.edu/boundless/a-spring-break-of-service/