Pacific student graduates against odds to pursue teaching dreams
Every time Claudia McClellan took her young son to Pacific University's Early Learning Community, she prayed that she, too, would one day attend classes at Pacific's Forest Grove campus.
"I would pray to God — please," said Claudia, often chatting with education professor Mark Bailey when she dropped off her son. "I told him that one day I would be coming to Pacific."
Bailey believed in this determined young woman. So did the other Pacific University professors who helped answer McClellan's prayers. After a decade of college classes, she graduated from Pacific University two weeks ago with a master's degree in education.
Walking up to the podium to receive her diploma, she said, "It was very emotional. I had all these flashbacks of the ups and downs of my life."
McClellan moved (legally) to the United States from Mexico when she was 22 years old, following her husband. But when she divorced him after years of abuse, McClellan was totally alone.
Her seven siblings and parents still lived in Mexico. She knew nobody in America and struggled to speak English and adjust to the culture while raising her children by herself.
McClellan thought about going back to Mexico to be with her family, but knew there would be no opportunities for her there as a single mother. "In Mexico, if you have kids, you won't get a job. And age matters so if you're over 30, you're done," she said. "It would have been impossible for me to start over again."
So she started over in America, where she found her passion — and the opportunity to pursue it.
"I love this country," she said. "You have no idea how much."
In love with learning
About 10 years ago, the Hillsboro resident started working at Century High School, assisting teachers of English Language Learners.
She connected with the teenage students, who hailed from a wide variety of countries and who, like her, struggled to fit in and speak English. "It's a hard age but I think they need me the most," she said. "They need someone to listen to them."
Century Principal Martha Guise said McClellan's positive and enthusiastic attitude, combined with her "firm but fair" approach, made McClellan an integral part of the teaching team.
At the same time, McClellan herself fell in love with learning.
"It was fascinating to be in the classroom because I got to learn too," she said. "It is so different from the schools in Mexico. There are more opportunities and resources here."
Mexico's public school system doesn't offer some of the basics American students have, McClellan said, such as lunches or transportation. And electives like technology courses are nonexistent.
Higher-quality education at private schools is very expensive in Mexico, so even though McClellan's father — a high school vice principal — believed strongly in education, she and her siblings attended the public schools.
After attending a Mexican university on scholarship and leaving her career in Mexico as a licensed flight attendant, McClellan had to start her education over in the United States.
She earned her associates degree at Portland Community College and then a bachelor's from the University of Phoenix while working full time and raising her children.
When McClellan started asking teachers she knew where to pursue a masters degree in education, "they all said Pacific is the best."
Dream come true
McClellan knew she'd have to work harder to get into Pacific but "it was a dream for me," she said. Then when she finally got accepted, she found herself afraid to go.
"You don't see a lot of Latinos there," she said. "And I still struggled with the language and had a ton of questions. But every professor always had answers for me right away."
Pacific Education Professor Anita Zijdemans Boudreau said McClellan always tackled assignments with her best effort. She also brought in homemade food and salsas to share. "She is one of those students I will always remember," Zijdemans Boudreau said. "Everybody kind of loves her."
More important, she added, McClellan loves the students she works with.
Century teacher Jeff Gower remembers a student who had bounced around different schools and was involved with gang activity. The young man was trying to recover enough credits to graduate and eventually succeeded with hours of one-on-one help from McClellan, he said.
"She would sit with him and bring him lunch because he often didn't have one," Gower said. "She made sure he stayed on track and that was a big success for both of us when he graduated."
"A lot of seniors have graduated because of Claudia," Guise said.
"Many of the students I've met don't feel proud of where they come from and they feel embarrassed that they can't speak the language," said McClellan, whose hard work paid off when she got a job teaching Spanish at Glencoe High School in the fall.
Model for Forest Grove
This is similar to an approach the Forest Grove School District is taking to recruiting competent bilingual, minority teachers, which are in short supply for a variety of reasons, according to Kevin Noreen, the district's human resources manager.
Two summers ago, Noreen created a Five-Year Recruiting Action Plan with Pacific, which aims to not only recruit such teachers from outside the district, but also to identify appropriate non-teaching staff inside the district who show potential and interest in becoming teachers.
District leaders and Pacific faculty would then help them earn degrees and surmount barriers such as lack of time and money or strict work schedules.
Leaving Century will be bittersweet but she's excited for her own classroom.
Guise, too, is sad to see McClellan leave but "happy for her to acheive her dream," she said. "She's inspired kids with her journey. The power of stories is real."
McClellan has since remarried and gets incredible support from her husband.
She hopes struggling immigrants will see her as an inspiration to pursue their own dreams despite hardship. "There were all kinds of challenges all those years, but nothing is impossible," she said.
"I just hope someone remembers me as someone who made a difference."