Saturday, July 13, 2024

LSUS graduate overcomes lack of formal education to earn teaching degree

by BIZ Magazine

By Melody Brumble | LSUS Foundation

SHREVEPORT — Vina Perez was working in her father’s construction business when other children her age were learning their ABCs.

Determined to improve her situation, at age 10 she started teaching herself to read. That same determination spurred her to enroll in college at age 35 as an example to her son, Samuel. Vina’s perseverance paid off when she graduated from LSU Shreveport with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education on May 10.

Samuel, now in his third semester at LSUS, cheered his mom on as she walked across the stage at commencement.

“Through sheer determination, Vina has reached her goal of becoming the teacher she never had,” said Dr. Joyce Farrow, chair of the LSUS College of Education. “She is the living embodiment of resilience and determination. Vina is passionate about children and learning and wants nothing more than for no other child to miss out on an education for any reason.”

Vina attended kindergarten briefly, but her deeply religious parents took her and her younger siblings out of school, saying they didn’t want the children exposed to ungodly ideas. They said they would homeschool Vina and her siblings.

Instead, Vina’s father put them to work.

“At best, I was seven years old. My older brother was only eight or nine.” My father would literally drop us off at a construction site, and say, ‘Do this and this’, then leave us there,” Vina says.  “I could build you a whole house at 10 years old, but I couldn’t read.”

Public libraries opened the door to learning.

“Whenever I could, I would walk down to the library. I would get a book on tape, and the book and a cassette player. I listened to the tapes and followed along in the books. I didn’t learn reading the ‘right’ way, where you sound things out. It was just memorizing the words,” Vina said.

After she mastered reading, Vina started teaching herself math. She discovered volunteer tutors and approached them for help.

“They would ask, ‘Where’s your homework?’ so I would find school-type books in the library and pretend that was my homework,” she says.

Vina hungered for knowledge even more after Samuel was born. She tried to enroll in college in her early 20s, but her parents – who never filed taxes – refused to let her do the forms so she could submit them with a financial aid application. They dismissed her dream of a college degree.

“They said, ‘You’re not smart enough’,” Vina recalls with a catch in her voice.

When she finally started college in 2018, she set out to prove them wrong. She consistently earned spots on the chancellor’s and deans lists at LSUS and Bossier Parish Community College. She was recognized for outstanding work at the LSUS Spring 2024 Academic Awards Convocation and was inducted into Kappa Delta Pi Honor Society while at LSUS.

 “As my son got in high school, I was like, ‘I want him to have a degree.  I need him to go to college, to go on farther in life.’ I was worried that if I didn’t do something about college, he wouldn’t go,” Vina says.

She and a neighbor, also a single mother, pledged to encourage each other as they took a leap of faith and enrolled at Bossier Parish Community College. She graduated with an associate degree in early childhood education in 2020.

She planned to enter LSUS right away but hit a snag and couldn’t start classes until August 2021.

“There’s been some hardships in this journey. There’s been some stumbles. I almost walked away from school then,” Vina says. “I thought about just going to work with the associate degree, but I could only teach in daycare, and I didn’t want to do that.”

Five privately-funded scholarships – the Mary Edna Adams Brossette Endowed Scholarship for Student Teaching, the Bobbie Cates Hicks Top Scholar Scholarship, the George A. Khoury, Jr. Scholarship in Education, the Elaine Williams Parker Endowed Scholarship in Education and a Noel Foundation Inc. Chancellor Scholarship – covered much of Vina’s tuition and expenses at LSUS.

Vina said she’s grateful for that support. She says it helped her stay the course to earn a bachelor’s degree so she can give back in the classroom. In her final semester at LSUS, she experienced the joy of watching children learn and grow during a teaching residency at Bellaire Elementary School in Bossier City.

LSUS Assistant Professor Lisa Cooper, the director of clinical teacher preparation, saw first-hand how Vina is already inspiring youngsters to learn.

“Despite facing obstacles, Vina remained focused on her goals and worked hard to succeed. Her dedication and commitment are commendable, and they serve as a shining example for others,” Cooper says.

Vina says she enjoyed working with third-graders at Bellaire and recalls one student who couldn’t seem to grasp a concept – until Vina flipped the script and became the student.

“Instead of me teaching the students, I said, ‘Y’all teach me.’ This student started talking about the lesson, and in the middle of a sentence, he said, ‘I get it now Mrs. Perez’,” Vina said. “This is what I live for. Even the smallest success is important.”

Vina hopes to have a classroom of her own this fall – but she plans to continue her own education journey by pursuing a master’s degree.

“I want to be an advocate for children, so they don’t end up like my brothers and sisters and I did,” Vina says. “I want to be the one who says to a child, ‘I know you can do it.’”

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