Why We Teach

My first semester at UTRGV, I was teaching Intro to US government. This was in the fall of 2016, a pretty eventful time in US politics. I was incredibly nervous to be at a new university, in a part of the country I had no familiarity with, trying to figure out how to teach students for whom politics had very different resonances than the folks I had been teaching in Santa Cruz.

I mostly got through it alright. But a big part of that was the students themselves. I can still vividly remember the day after the election, trying to figure out how I could situate what was happening – and what it meant about how the country felt about my students, about this part of the country, about the whole idea of the American dream.

What I discovered is that my students were far more resilient than I was. They still believed in the promise. They still felt like this was a place that could live up to its potential. They were still proud to be here. Not universally, of course. Some were terrified, some were despondent. But on the whole, they had a deep faith in their own potential, and they were certain they could make things better.

Fast forward three years. I just attended the graduation and saw many of those students I first met in the fall of 2016 walk across the stage, big smiles on their faces, diplomas in their hands. I watched them celebrate with their families. I got to meet parents, and in many cases we communicated with smiles more than words – because they spoke about as much English as I can speak Spanish (not a lot!). But it didn’t matter. Because we were united by our admiration and love for these amazing people.

I have students going onto law school at places like UT and St. Mary’s and Colorado. They want to practice immigration law to come back to the border and help people make something of the promise of America. They want to practice family law, to protect women who suffer domestic violence. I have students immediately starting jobs in local politics. I have students applying to grad school. I have students training to be nurses, to be teachers, to be social workers. Some of them don’t know what they want to do yet, but they are excited about the chance to figure it all out. And I’m just so impossibly proud of all of them.

So whenever I feel pessimistic about the future of this country, and the dark places we are trending toward, I try to remember these students. Not to convince myself that everything will be okay, just because I want it to be. But to remind myself that things get better because you work hard to make them better.