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Oscar Ramírez never had a Latino teacher growing up. Not in grade school, not in middle school and not in high school. Nunca.
That all changed when Ramírez, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University. “I suddenly had Latino teachers,” Ramírez said. “I would visit my professors during office hours and talk to them. They opened my mind and made me believe I can do anything.”
They were right. Now on the verge of earning his bachelor’s degree in Secondary Education with a focus on History, Ramírez is serving as a summer intern in the Washington, D.C., office of one of the most prominent Latino figures in the nation (and also a Northeastern alumnus)—Congressman Luis Gutiérrez.
“Northeastern has been a vehicle for me to connect with my own identity and my own community,” said Ramírez, who enrolled at Northeastern in 2011 after graduating from Lake View High School in Chicago. “There are mentors everywhere.”
Once he earns his bachelor’s degree, Ramírez plans to pursue graduate school and eventually enroll in a Ph.D. program in Education Policy to influence policy in a manner that expands opportunities for Latino youth in culturally and linguistically responsive ways.
Ramírez’s transformation into a man of action began when he arrived at Northeastern. At about the same time, Ramírez also started volunteering at the Albany Park Community Center just south of the University’s Main Campus. Though he grew up in Albany Park, Ramírez said volunteering as a youth leader opened his eyes to the greater triumphs and struggles of his community.
Ramírez spoke with his professors, and with leaders in Albany Park, and the lessons and messages mingled in his mind. Ramírez began to learn and appreciate the history of the Latino community, Central America and Guatemala. “Little by little, I started submerging myself in the community and started falling in love with my community,” Ramírez said. “I just started appreciating it more than I ever had.”
With the appreciation also came frustration as Ramírez witnessed firsthand the realities of socioeconomic disparity and education inequities. Then, a realization: The wellbeing of Ramírez’s community was his responsibility as well. Rather than being the student searching for a teacher who understood his culture and his issues, Ramírez decided he would become that teacher.
“Oscar is an excellent student and critical thinker,” said his adviser, Associate Professor Isaura Pulido. “As a child of immigrant parents who worked very hard to provide Oscar opportunities, it is no surprise he brings a strong work ethic to his schoolwork and extracurricular activities.”
Ramírez entered Northeastern’s McNair Scholars Program, which prepares students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. He traveled to El Salvador to meet aspiring doctoral students and learn about their research projects, and in turn hosted them at Northeastern. And, of course, he took a summer internship with Congressman Guitérrez.
Pulido saw a spark in Ramírez from the very first time he took one of her classes, Philosophical and Historical Foundations of Education. Ramírez developed a research paper on the politics of bilingual education that required him to not only summarize the research but also to analyze it and “speak back” to the body of literature. “Oscar made valuable contributions to class in ways that expanded our understandings of the readings and made us think about issues the authors failed to consider,” Pulido said. “These were substantial contributions on his part that shifted his classmates’ notions of who holds knowledge, who constructs knowledge and whose knowledge is valued.”
Indeed, that was only the beginning. “I want to see that I’m making a change,” Ramírez said. “I want to be someone who has the power to make changes.”