Alumni Spotlight: Iliana Mendez Rosario C’19, Teach for America English Teacher

Iliana graduated Drew with a B.A. in Sociology and Spanish and a minor in Political Science in 2019. She has taught English at the University Prep Public school in the Bronx for almost 2 years through Teach for America. She has a passion for education reform and policy and her past experiences involve working with various programs assisting with educational inequity as well as conducting research on marginalized communities.


Iliana was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to Boston, Massachusetts in middle school.  She heard about Drew at a College Fair at Boston University and it seemed like a great fit. As a heritage Spanish speaker she thought Spanish would be an easy major for her but she realized that learning Spanish at Drew also meant learning and understanding the culture and history. She said, “It wasn’t just proficiency in the language. I realized there was so much more to learn in how it all comes together to build an identity. It was much more complex. I fell in love with the language.” She was also interested in learning about social causes and movements so she found the perfect major in sociology. It was a great way to understand society through culture, race, and class. Iliana said, “The way Sociology and Spanish went together was beautiful.  I was able to take classes that cross listed with both, as well as political science courses, and I found my passion was understanding society through a sociological and political lens while also combining the cultural aspect of the Spanish identity. I find this intersection in my work currently in education.”

Some of her favorite memories of Drew are related to her role as Resident Assistant at Tolley-Brown for two years. Iliana said, “That role was one of the most amazing experiences I had at Drew. I was thankful to get this position after my first year.  The biggest reason I wanted to be an R.A. was that as a first generation college student, when I was a first-year student I had so many questions, I felt I didn’t belong, and I felt a sense of culture shock. I was completely scampering for resources and information yet gun shy about asking questions. Going into the R.A. position I wanted to be the person who could help students with any of their questions or concerns and build a floor culture in which I could be transparent with them and just generally welcoming. I wanted to be a resource for first year students and also put together more cultural events that promoted diversity.  I loved it because I had a lot of flexibility and I was able to share my passions and it was a place where I could have a voice.”

Iliana feels one of the values of Drew was the opportunity to discover so many new things.  She said, “Drew taught me that there is so much more to explore. I learned the importance of networking and taking advantage of every opportunity around you to learn.  I feel that Drew gave me such an in-depth view of what it means to learn about the world around you. I’m grateful because I know there’s always more to learn.  Post-grad I have a drive to explore.  I’m jumping at opportunities.”


What inspired you to teach for Teach for America?

I did the EOS summer program as a Sociology tutor for former Sociology professor Dr. Kesha Moore. This was my first time working with a professor who was using classroom techniques. It was amazing.  I was able to work individually with students to help them unpack the sociological concepts and this was the first time I had a “teaching” experience.  I loved the E.O.S. program and working with incoming first year students.  I knew I liked teaching and tied it to my major in sociology.  I was looking at grad programs in sociology (Master’s and Ph.D programs) and went through entire graduate school process.  I did not get into these programs, so I looked up Teach for America and recruiters then reached out to me to discuss the details. The goal of this program aligns with what I’m passionate about when it comes to Sociology.  I found a passion for race, ethnicity and inequalities in education and urban sociology. That’s where Teach for America centers their mission.  They take students with leadership skills, passion and drive, and give them the skills they need to go into classrooms and make change.  Since their mission aligned with my passion, I thought I would try it. I knew this would open a new world for me with the possibility of being life changing.  They placed me in New York City as a 5th grade English teacher in the Bronx and that’s where I started my teaching career.

At first I tried to channel my own middle childhood experience. I realized I didn’t have a good educational experience in that grade because that’s when I moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S.  I was so lost. I knew I didn’t want my students to experience what I experienced. All I remember is that it was super challenging and I didn’t have a voice.  When I came into the classroom I was prepared with the teaching techniques, and ready to roll out what I had learned but I found that my experience of building relationships and understanding my students was what was most important. I needed to understand their community, their culture, etc. That is really where the learning experience started which was building a relationship with each individual student.  They all have their own personality, their own home experience, community experience, etc.  I invested in learning how they learn and process.  This made it easier to teach. Once I built rapport with students, things started to change.  They have taught me so much.  I will be completing my M.A.T in May 2021. Though my two years in Teach for America is ending by June, I fell in love with teaching.  They will leave middle school with an idea of how things work.  This age group in 5th grade is interested in the why.  I plan to continue to teach but open to other teaching experiences, maybe in Boston because that’s where my family lives.

What are some of the things you’ve learned from your students?

They taught me the importance of taking my time with things, the importance of breaking things down and slowly processing information.

They also taught me how important it is to be an advocate.  This is built from the rapport I developed with my students.  My heart is with each and every one of them.  My heart is in their growth and every challenge they are going through.  I always think about my students.  I speak for them even when I am not in the classroom.  When you make a decision it’s impacting your students.  For instance, when the election happened, I had to think of my students and how it impacted them.  I’m vouching and advocating for the youth that are predominantly black and Hispanic and from low income areas.  When I’m not teaching I’m doing social justice work in terms of education.  I want to help them find their voice.

Are you teaching remotely with Covid?  What are the biggest challenges?

My biggest challenge with remote learning is the lack of computers, Wi-Fi, food, etc. These areproblems that were there before Covid.  This pandemic just highlighted some of the issues my students have always faced.  We know this is going to be tough, the question is how can we make it equitable for our students?  We’ve been trying to make up for the lack of urgency in our system.  I’ve been transparent with our students when things don’t work.  It puts less pressure on them. I don’t want them to think they need to be “Perfect” students.  We are still modifying because what worked in the school is not transferring remotely. Another thing is the social/emotional health of the students.  We have to try to provide help when you can’t physically be with them.  How can we get students to share when they are in a space where they can’t share.  We have to come up with brand new processes for students who can’t take a break because we are virtual.  The urgency for resources need to be addressed after Covid.

What do you think is the key to being a great teacher?

Always keeping the students in mind and building the classroom around the students’ personalities, their learning styles, their cultures, their identities, and their interests.  Not forgetting that you are part of the culture.   Understanding that the culture of the classroom is important throughout the year and keep it safe so students can grow.  A great teacher is always someone who pushes their students to be great. Give students an opportunity to explore as much as they can, whether it be a virtual travel to take students to places in the world, introducing them to different clubs.  Make sure students are exposed to a variety of things so they can learn about themselves, cultures, communities, and people, etc.

What advice would you give a Drew student who is interested in teaching?

Teaching is not just about teaching techniques, classroom practices, etc.  It is a lot more.  It’s about you, your students, your community, and culture.  It’s not just about the passion you have for the subject you teach but the passion you have for working with students and the importance of getting to know them well. This is one of the most important things.  Also, you’re a student just as much as you’re a teacher.  You will be learning, growing, modifying and implementing new practices and processes. You are work as an advocate, always fighting for a better education for your students.

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