Inspiring grads: Celia Gonzalez

Celia Gonzalez. (Joshua Clark/University of Illinois Chicago)

Celia Gonzalez has perfected the art of balancing school and family responsibilities.

She’s succeeded in her undergraduate classes while also working nearly full time — sometimes two jobs — to help her family financially. She’s scheduled her classes around being home to make sure her younger brothers, now 10 and 12, have breakfast before school. She’s home early enough to help them with homework, which is difficult for their mom, whose first language is not English. She’s there to pick them up at sports practice after working eight hours at a day care near their Alsip home.

And she’s managed to do all of this while graduating a semester early.

“It was a lot, but I needed to do it to help my family and continue with my studies,” said Gonzalez, who graduates Dec. 10 with a bachelor’s degree in the Teaching of Spanish. “Graduating is overwhelming and emotional, in a good way. I’m just really proud of myself because it hasn’t been easy. It really hasn’t been. I’m just glad I’ve been able to persevere, despite everything.”

Since sixth grade, Gonzalez has known she wanted to attend UIC. She would come to campus with her mom and brother, who was born with a cleft palate, for his appointments at the UI Health Craniofacial Center so she could translate for her mom.

“We would walk around the west side of campus, and I really loved it,” she said. “I knew right away, at 11 or 12 years old, that I wanted to come to UIC because great people were here who helped my brother.”

As she grew older and discovered her passion for education, she found the right fit in UIC’s Teaching of Spanish program, which allows graduates to pursue a teaching license for preschool through high school students.

“I had a hard time figuring out what age group I wanted to teach, and I was like, ‘OK, this is perfect, I can do pre-K through 12th grade.’ I loved it right away,” she said.

While at UIC, Gonzalez has worked as a server and a day care assistant around her classes. She later qualified to work as a teacher at the day care and began working as many as 40 hours per week.

“My schedule was very hectic,” she said. “It was a lot of work to do, but I loved it. I wouldn’t go back and change any of it.”

As a new teacher, she also faced a fresh challenge: the pandemic, and all of the classroom accommodations that came along with it.

“It was my first time being in charge of an actual classroom, having to lesson plan and teach, and it was very overwhelming,” she said. “It was very stressful those first two months, especially adapting to the new regulations from the CDC. It felt impossible, but in the end, it was doable.”

This semester, Gonzalez is student teaching at Morgan Park High School on the South Side of Chicago. Now, she’s helping older students transition back to in-person learning after spending more than a year learning virtually.

“Some of these students haven’t been back to class since they were in seventh grade, so it’s a hard transition for them, on top of it being a hard transition for me,” she said. “We’re just figuring it out together, taking it day by day. But at the end of the day, I love it and wouldn’t want to do it at any other moment. I know how to maneuver through a pandemic now, and I’m learning this early in my career, so I feel prepared for anything that comes.”

As a first-generation college student, Gonzalez felt the pressure of achieving success as she worked toward her degree.

“My mom is from a really small town in Mexico, and she always used to tell me, ‘The only thing I want you to do is go to school,’” Gonzalez said. “I feel like many other first-generation students can relate to this, but I think we feel this pressure to be so successful because our parents made all these sacrifices, and we need to pay them back in a way.”

Her hard work paid off with a job offer before she even received her diploma. Starting in January, Gonzalez will teach Spanish at South Shore International High School in Chicago’s South Shore community. While teaching linguistics to students, she also wants to help them learn about the culture of Spanish-speaking countries.

“I am incredibly passionate about incorporating culture in the classroom while simultaneously exposing students to the linguistics of a world language,” she said. “The Spanish and Latin American and Latino studies programs at UIC prepared me immensely for my future. Professors from the LALS program have enlightened me on important cultural moments in history that are important to be passed down to future generations.”

She also found support on her path to her first job from UIC Career Services.

“I was able to work with an adviser to create a résumé that highlighted all of my attributes. In addition, I received interview preparation, which helped me gain professional conversational skills that I used to land my first full-time job out of college,” she said.

“I can truly say that I am ready for life after graduation.”

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