Thursday, July 6, 2017

Guest blog entry from Department of Education intern Shirley Vargas

Greetings! My name is Shirley Vargas, and I am honored and privileged to be on the land of the Oceti Sakowin. I have the opportunity to serve as a summer intern at the South Dakota Department of Education, as I work towards my doctorate in educational leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I was born and raised in The Bronx, New York, where I attended public school from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Throughout my schooling, I often wondered when someone like me would appear in textbooks, slideshows, or in a profession other than music or dance. I believed that my language and culture were more than one month out of the school year. However, the lack of linguistic and cultural affirmation and my parents’ insistence on having to "fit in," led me to believe that maybe it was best not to stand out.

My mother is from Peru; my father is from the Dominican Republic, and both experienced racism and discrimination because of their native language, use of English and cultural practices. I found it necessary to enter the education field in order to serve as a role model for other students and provide support to families and communities about the importance of language and culture preservation.

As I began my doctoral studies and heard the powerful voices of Native students on campus, I began to realize that I wasn't alone in my experience, and I had a significant “blind spot” when it comes to understanding the history, culture and education of Native youth and their communities. This realization is part of what drew me to South Dakota.

I am fascinated by the work that has come out of the Native American Student Achievement Advisory Council. Thus far, I have spent some time learning about the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and their goals and aspirations as a way to impart cultural diversity and empower Native communities. I have also learned about the paraprofessional tuition assistance scholarship program, which aims to help paraprofessionals at qualifying schools earn their teaching degrees. I believe there is great potential for leveraging the assets of Native communities to further the achievement of their youth.

Coming from the hustle and bustle of the East Coast to South Dakota, I am struck by the comparatively quiet nature of the state, the wide open spaces, and at the same time, the unique opportunity to be so close to the action.

It is exciting to witness the close connection between state officials and educators. During my first week here, I had the opportunity to travel to the Statewide Mentoring Program Summer Academies in Spearfish and Sioux Falls. Getting to visit with educators who participated in this important program was powerful. I am encouraged by the intentionality of this work to elevate the teaching profession in South Dakota, so that all of our students receive the best educational experience, which they deserve.

There are great things happening here. I’m joyful to play even a small part in it during my brief time here this summer. Best wishes to you as you continue your efforts to ensure all South Dakota students graduate college, career and life ready.