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Two-Time Alumna Breaks Down Barriers with Book Program


Zenia and students II
Zenia Gutierrez reads a book to students from the bilingual library at Bloomingdale Elementary School northwest of Kalamazoo.

Zenia Gutierrez’s high school Spanish teacher and counselor gave her the encouragement she needed to pursue higher education. “I guess they saw in me a brightness that I didn't see in myself,” she said.

Zenia then began the process of applying to colleges and got a a full-ride scholarship to Western Michigan University.

“That’s when my life really changed,” she said. “Education changed and shaped my life.”

While at WMU, Zenia found support in the TRIO Student Success Program, which helps first-generation, income-eligible students make the transition to college through academic, financial and career assistance.

“It really helped me as a student, because they would check on you and see how you're doing, how your grades were,” she recalled. "On top of providing that support, if there were any personal things I was going through, (my mentor) would always give me great advice. I felt that TRIO made a big difference.”

After working three jobs in high school to support herself and help her family, Zenia said Western put her on the path to a better future.

“It (earning her bachelor’s degree in Spanish) was like winning the lottery,” she said. “Walking in the line (at commencement), I was in disbelief that I had made it through. I graduated; I had a degree. I had made something out of myself and I was about to start my dream job as a teacher.”

Returning to earn her master's degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), which she recently completed, Zenia is paying that jackpot forward by creating avenues of opportunity for families just like hers.

As a third-grade teacher at Bloomingdale Elementary in rural Van Buren County, MI, she decided to try out a pilot program using money from a grant Western received from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition to purchase bilingual books that six of her students could take home and read with their parents. The books told stories in both English and Spanish.

It didn't take long for Zenia to witness the project’s impact. One boy's face was full of pride when he told her his father had been reading to him at night. Another parent mentioned this was the first time she had ever been able to read a book to her 10-year-old child.

“How a simple change made such a big difference,” she added. She knew the program couldn't stop there and got to work on a pitch to take the program districtwide. Her presentation tugged at the heartstrings of the school district’s now-retired superintendent.

With the superintendent’s green light, Zenia officially launched Breaking Barriers with Bilingual Books, expanding access to more than 150 families in the district's two elementary schools in the 2021-22 academic year. Today, after accepting a position as an English Learner and migrant education teacher in Van Buren Intermediate School District, she's talking with other school districts in the area about instituting the program, too.

“It started with six students, now four school districts—I have to take it one step at a time, but my lifelong goal is to get the books where they are needed,” she said. “The lack of bilingual books is a problem that exists throughout our entire nation, and if there isn't a voice in other states, I want to be that voice.”

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