The author at Cerro de Monserrate in Bogata, Colombia.

During the 2016 school year, I decided to pursue a lifelong dream of living and working abroad. I applied for a Fulbright teaching grant, and ironically, my application was due the same night that the Chicago Teachers Union had set as a deadline to strike. That night of shuffling between my personal statement and essays, live Twitter updates on the contract negotiations and student emails asking about school the next day encapsulated the tension I was feeling about potentially leaving, and the need to stay and continue the work I was doing in my middle school classroom.

After months of uncertainty, I was awarded a Fulbright grant and was placed to work as an English teaching assistant at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá, Colombia. My eighth grade students had a wide range of questions: Where will you live? Are you scared? Do they eat tacos in Colombia? What if you miss your family? Are you parents ok with you going? How can I do this later on in my life? This last question resonated with me.

I applied for a Fulbright grant because it’s important for people of color to hold space in prestigious organizations that have (and continue to be) white-dominant spaces. Furthermore, as a Latinx educator, it’s imperative that I not only lead for my students from within the classroom, but also that I work to open doors and opportunities for younger people of color. During my year abroad, that meant silently protesting racially insensitive workshops by walking out and holding Fulbright officials accountable by initiating a conversation that resulted in the creation of a diversity committee that would make concrete recommendations for Fulbright to move towards becoming a safe and welcoming space for all people.

It also meant guiding a former student through a rigorous application process for a high school study abroad program and writing her a letter of recommendation. In her email to me she wrote, “The reason why I want you to write this teacher recommendation letter [is] because you’re doing something I only dream of doing one day…going abroad and teaching English to students in a foreign country. I really love to travel and learn about different cultures.” Young people see what we do and as teacher leaders, our actions allow others to see the world of possibilities and have the courage to follow those dreams.

During my experience abroad, I was challenged to adapt to new environments and build community in places where I didn’t know anyone. My first semester students challenged me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and helped me to critically look at language and language instruction. As a Mexican-American, I didn’t fit their stereotype of an American, so they asked me things like, “What culture do I ‘live in’ the most? Do your American-American (i.e., ‘white’) friends see you as equally American?” They also asked lots of questions about how my identity shapes my politics in light of the current U.S. presidential administration.

I also grappled with language instruction, and was surprised to learn that at the most prestigious public university in Colombia, English is the dominant academic language. I learned that language is not neutral; it is intrinsically tied to culture and values because the language we speak shapes our thinking. Throughout my time there, I engaged students in discussions about this and the potential dangers of language as a tool for erasure. As a bilingual teacher, I’ve thought about these issues at length, but this experience has given me a deeper and more nuanced understanding. As I head into the next school year, I invite others to struggle with this as well. If we are to truly build loving and inclusive classrooms, we must challenge English as the dominant language and truly value students’ identities and languages.

In Bogotá, I found my community and my people in working with the Martin Luther King Scholars, an Obama-era scholarship program for Afro-Colombian and indigenous youth to learn English and develop leadership skills during their university years. I became involved with the Scholars when I partnered with Talibah Sun, the English Language Fellow through the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. I’ll never forget the first time I attended the MLK meeting, and during introductions one of the MLK scholars introduced herself by saying a few words in her native language, which translated as, “I am Muisca, native to this territory. I welcome you to my land.”

It was painfully familiar to hear the MLK Scholars say things like, “Our history is not taught to us in schools…our communities, culture and traditions are not dead they are just not valued. The government doesn’t invest in our communities, [but] rather they cause direct harm.” Through song, storytelling, dance, poetry and dialogue, we built a community that honored its histories and raised voices. Throughout my time working with the MLK Scholars, they organized and performed the first ever Black History Month celebration, led a weekend of events celebrating the indigenous communities in Colombia and engaged in an array of leadership activities. For many of the scholars, these events were the first time that they were truly given an opportunity to share their stories with each other.

During an identity and poetry workshop that I led, a student started off the sharing session with the lines, “Tengo una deuda con mis ancestros, con esos que me dieron la esencia y la fuerza para caminar, una deuda conmigo misma porque llevo una historia que no puedo ignorar.” This translated as, “I have a debt with my ancestors, with those that gave me my essence and the strength to walk, [and] a debt with myself because I carry a history that I cannot ignore.” The room was stunned to silence, but only for a moment because so many of the scholars wanted to share. They wrote about their homes composed of mountains and valleys, food that tastes of home and the people and experiences that have shaped them. I grew with them in those short months that I was there. The MLK Scholars reminded me of my students here in Chicago—they are smart, talented and so full of potential, and trying to thrive in a world that continues to marginalize and exclude their voices. I was reminded again that something really powerful happens when people start to believe that creating a different world is possible.

On the last day of classes at the university, I asked each student to share a six-word story that expressed something they learned in class or how they felt as they finished the class that semester. The story I wrote was, “The teacher learns in class, too.” This entire experience challenged me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I grew in ways I can never measure, but something I do know with certainty is that I am a better person and a better teacher after this experience.

I am so grateful to be going back to school with the rest of the teachers, PSRPs and clinicians in Chicago. The fight for the schools that Chicago students deserve is long and trying, so it is important for us to remember to take care of ourselves when you need to, but to never give up. La lucha sigue y es un placer caminar contigo. (“The fight goes on and it’s a pleasure to walk with you.)

Roxana Gonzalez is a teacher at Prieto Math and Science Academy.

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.