TURLOCK — California State University, Stanislaus, will honor more than 2,500 graduates today and Friday in three ceremonies.
Walking in a freshly unwrapped robe for her first trip across a graduation stage will be one student who beat long odds to earn her credential as a high school math teacher.
Veronica Chaidez was good in math. Not a natural, she said: “It was the one subject my parents could help me in.” Her parents had never gone beyond elementary school, and to this day don’t see the point in going to school, she said.
In junior high, they encouraged her to quit school and get a job. “You could be an extra income. That’s the way they thought,” she said. It was only the threat of a truancy fine that forced them to send her back to school.
“I was the epitome of an at-risk teen,” Chaidez said. She had a baby at 14 but kept studying at Elliott Continuation High School. In her senior year, she left school for good, or so she thought.
As a condition of receiving welfare, however, she went back and got a GED. “Again, I was told to go to school, not because school was important or to make me better. I never really understood what it could do for me,” Chaidez said.
Then came a decade of working what she calls dead-end jobs and co-owning a small business with her brother. But the work held no challenge and no inspiration for her four daughters. “I’m just making ends meet right now,” she recalls saying to her brother. “What am I going to tell my kids?”
She enrolled in Modesto Junior College, intending to go into social work. But a math teacher convinced her to tutor some remedial algebra students. On their next test, she saw their progress.
“I told him, ‘Look! This one’s gone from an F to a C. That’s huge. They don’t have to retake your class.’ He said, ‘What about your grade?’ I didn’t know what my grade was. I hadn’t looked. It didn’t matter. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, because you’re an educator,’ ” Chaidez said. “That’s when I knew.”
This year, her second in the teaching credential program, she taught math as an intern at Orestimba High School in Newman.
Some of her students wrote notes to her in their last week of the term. “I have never been able to enjoy or understand math until this year,” wrote sophomore Toni Ball.
“She comes to school every day with a funny story and a smile. She overcame her past to help us create a future,” sophomore Nancy De Leon wrote.
Chaidez’s unconventional path helped her become an exceptional teacher, said her mentor, Stanislaus State math professor Viji Sundar.
“I have never had a student like Veronica,” Sundar said Wednesday. Lots of great math students, she said, but Chaidez brings something that can’t be taught. “It’s really impossible to bottle passion and give it to you,” she said.
“It is said, every knock is a boost. She’s had so many knocks, but instead of falling down, she changes it to a boost.”
Teaching at a school with low-income students fulfills the requirements of the Robert Noyce Scholarship that’s helping Chaidez pay her way through school, but she always wanted to help kids similar to her.
“It doesn’t matter how you grow up, it’s what you do with your life,” she said. “I made it when the odds were all against me. I was the black sheep and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college.”
When she told her father she had earned her bachelor’s degree, she said, “He looked at me, stone-faced, and asked me, ‘Is that an accomplishment?’ ”
In fact, it is. The national statistics on young mothers getting any college degree are 1 in 50, according to a 2006 study.
Chaidez shares her stories with her daughters, Abigail, Gabrielle and Jazmin Pinedo, ages 9, 14 and 15, respectively, and her oldest, Desireé Vasquez, 20.
Vasquez, now a sophomore at Stanislaus State majoring in criminal justice, said her mother is a force. “No matter what, she’s always driven and she’s never satisfied,” she said.
Though she’s never told her, Vasquez said, “she’s remarkable. I just look up to her so much.”
Tonight, Chaidez’s daughters will get to watch her walk the stage to receive her teaching credential, in her first graduation ceremony. She dropped out of junior high and high school, so she never got to walk those stages.
She graduated from MJC, but a swine flu outbreak forced cancellation of the ceremony. Her bachelor’s degree in math from Stanislaus State was conferred while she attended a conference in Washington, D.C.
“I just want to take (the robe) out of the package,” Chaidez said with a smile.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.