Teaching to Make a Difference

By: Raquel J. Pantojas and Reina Santiago

If you have taken a basic English course at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez recently, you probably have met, heard about, or seen Elenita Irizarry, a graduate teaching assistant of the Department of English. There is a spark that shines in certain people, and Elenita is undoubtedly one of them.

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Elenita Irizarry when she played in the UPRM’s soccer team more than two years ago.

“I want to make the world a better place,” Elenita says, “because the way the world functions today is unsustainable in the long term. If we do not do something about it now, there might not be a world for our children in the future.”

Elenita is a tall, light-skinned, freckled face, full-sized graduate student at UPRM (also known as Colegio).

She is currently an English graduate student and English instructor. Unlike most of her peers in the Master of Arts in English Education program at UPRM, she was not an English “major.”

“I always had an interest in nature,” Elenita recalls, “my high-school biology teacher was amazing, and so I decided to study biology.” However, after finishing her bachelor’s degree in biology, .

Elenita changed paths. Currently, her goals are focused on her studies. “I want to finish my thesis!,” Elenita says. “Then, I want to pursue a PhD related to service learning. Service learning is when you use community service to teach core concepts. Ultimately, I want to teach for the rest of my life.”

With determination, in her current position as an English educator at UPRM, Elenita not only encourages her students to step in to help others, but also models this kind of work. Adriana Lebrón, a UPRM student enrolled in the “Plan COOP Institutional” (INTD) course Elenita collaborates with said: “I’ve never seen a woman do so much work. She multitasks: she studies, she volunteers at the English Department, she teaches, and she also helps Hogar Portal de Amor in San Germán.”

Elenita’s dedication to helping others, started at an early age. “My mom inspired me to do volunteer work,” Elenita says. “Well, I have always enjoyed helping others; I think it’s something my mother instilled in me from an early age. I don’t really know why, I’ve never really thought about it. I guess, it’s just the right thing to do.”

Her childhood experiences marked her. “I was born right here in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico a day before my mother’s birthday,” Elenita says. Due to the nature of Elenita’s father in the army, she mentions that she had the opportunity to grow up in a lot of places during her childhood. “I went to preschool here [Mayagüez] on the island at a catholic school. Then, I lived in Frankfurt, Germany, Augusta Georgia, McAllen Texas, and then I came back to Puerto Rico but I traveled back and forth to Costa Rica.”

Adriana Lebrón, also an English student who first came into contact with Elenita in August 2012, states that since her first year at UPRM, Elenita inspired her to join her special course in community service. “Doing charity work with her has definitely changed my perspective in life,” Lebrón says.

Elenita doesn’t fully agree with her Lebrón’s terms. “Charity is such a strong word!” Elenita says, “I don’t consider helping others charity work, because I feel I get so much more from helping others than what they could get from me.”

For about five years or more, the work Elenita has done impacted others like Lebrón, but once again, Elenita thinks different. “I see it as a symbiosis, a collaboration, a partnership where everyone who participates is equally benefited,” Elenita says.

This semester, Spring 2014, Elenita is teaching three basic English courses, which is a heavy load for a graduate teaching assistant, but she’s doing much more than just teaching. “Currently, I’m involved with local foster care group homes,” Elenita says, “I coordinate a community outreach project [INTD] that pairs undergraduate students with children placed in these group homes.” She mentioned that the course is like “a big brother/ big sister program, where students mentor kids on everything from homework to playing.” Elenita emphasizes that it was more “about creating a family for kids who have been displaced from theirs.”

By partaking on this program, Elenita has helped others like Adriana Lebrón to expose themselves to the needs of others. “Before joining INTD, I hardly thought of how a simple smile could help others,” Lebrón says, “I hardly thought of how helping others could help me to think beyond myself.”

When asked to share an anecdote, Elenita didn’t hesitate to answer. “My happiest moment was this semester,” Elenita recalls. “There was an activity we had with the kids where they made crowns. One of the girls wrote on a crown her name and mine around it and decorated with hearts… then she gave it to me. Best gift I have ever gotten.”

Whether it’s teaching, multitasking, or even giving seminars about varied topics, Elenita remains unfazed. “I think it has made me a better person, more compassionate, more grateful,” Elenita says. “When I have a million papers to grade, a 15 page essay to write and when I feel like everything is overwhelming, I look at my crown and think of those few hours a week I spend with the kids and everything falls into perspective. I am very grateful for the charity work those kids at the shelter have done to me.”

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