WWU Graduates First Cohort of ‘Pathways to Teaching’ Program; Designed to Get Bilingual Instructional Assistants Their Teaching Certification


Berenice Rodriguez always dreamed of being a teacher.

When her family came to the United States on a tourist visa from her native Mexico when she was eight years old so they could work in the berry fields of Skagit County, the dream never wavered. Long hours in the fields before and after school and learning a new language never deterred her. But the realities of being an undocumented student – no financial aid opportunities or loans, and even an inability to pursue a teaching degree at Western Washington University once she transferred there from Skagit Valley College because she would need to be fingerprinted – slowed her dream from becoming a reality.

She graduated with a degree in General Studies but her goal of leading her own classroom eluded her, and there were times when she wondered if it had all been worth it. She got married soon after and began raising a family, always hoping a time would come when she could again pursue her dream.

“I definitely had moments where I wondered if it was all worth it, all that work,” she said. “But you just have to have faith – and in the end, it was.”

The pieces began falling into place in June 2012, when President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation that granted her a renewable two-year work visa. She would remain a Mexican national – but for the first time, she could work and study in this country without fear of deportation, and she soon began a job as an instructional assistant at Lucille Umbarger Elementary School in Burlington, working mainly with Spanish-speaking students in its English Language Learner (ELL) program.

Soon after, she heard about a new program at Western called Pathways to Teaching, which is designed to help working instructional assistants earn a bachelor’s degree, their teaching certification, and an ELL or Bilingual endorsement while continuing to work. The program aims to increase the number of bilingual, ethnic minority and first-generation teachers in Washington state.

Maria Timmons Flores, the program coordinator for the Pathways program and an associate professor of Elementary Education in Western’s Woodring College of Education, said the seven-quarter program is designed to be completed with the students’ work schedule and family lives in mind and address a critical need.

“In Washington, currently 43 percent of our public-school students are non-white, while only 7 percent of certified teachers are of color.  Bilingual education is one of the most powerful ways to close the opportunity gap, yet we do not have the teachers we need to teach in a language other than English,” she said. “This program will develop teachers who represent the communities in which they teach and with the ability to teach in a second language and support bilingual students.”

The cost of the program, bearing in mind the salaries of the instructional assistants who are its focus, is largely paid for by grants and loans. Western’s first cohort of 15 students just graduated from the Pathways program last week, and Rodriguez will start her new job this fall – as a teacher – at Burlington’s Westview Elementary School, teaching in Spanish in a dual-language school.

Shortly before her graduation, Rodriguez gave the keynote speech at Woodring’s annual graduation celebration, where she tearfully recounted the struggles she and her family faced to get to this point – her lifelong dream just a few shorts months away from becoming a reality.

“I always thought a four-year degree took four years, but it took me 10 years to get here. Many doors closed in front of me,” she said. “But thanks to this program and the incredible support you gave us, and because so many of you wouldn’t let us quit when times got tough, here we are. I guess I’m a dreamer – and I invite you to dream, too.”

For more information on the Pathways to Teaching program, contact Maria Timmons Flores at (360) 650-4559 or at maria.timmonsflores@wwu.edu.