CHICAGO — When Jaqueline Sanchez steps off the train at the Fullerton stop at DePaul University, she feels like she’s arrived in more ways than one. Sanchez grew up just north of the Lincoln Park Campus, attending Horace Greeley Elementary School and dreaming of becoming a teacher. But when she had a baby at the age of 14, her plans derailed.
“Now I’m breaking the cycle,” said Sanchez, a 34-year-old mother of three. “I’m proud of all my children and I’m their example —you have to go to school, you have to do something with your life,” she says. Sanchez will become the first in her family to earn a college degree when she graduates June 15 from DePaul’s College of Education with a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
Finding her path close to home
Teachers have been the constant in her life, helping Sanchez find her way. “Growing up, my teachers set the bar high—where we come from, we can do anything if we set our minds to it,” says Sanchez, who has lived in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood for most of her life.
Her childhood was marked by poverty, with a father in prison and a mother suffering from addiction. Being a young mom was difficult, and she also experienced domestic violence. A turning point for Sanchez arrived after her third child was born and she suffered life-threatening health complications. She knew it was time to go after her dream. After she enrolled in community college, she learned about the TRiO program, which provides academic planning and advising to low-income students.
During a tour of DePaul’s Lincoln Park Campus with other TRiO students, Sanchez felt at home. “When I walked on campus, I just fell in love,” she says. “I wasn’t a traditional student, and the TRiO program was a big pull. I knew I was going to get the support I needed.”
Gifted with patience and drive
With her DePaul classmates, she shared her personal story to inspire them that anything is possible. A desire to serve students from diverse and challenging backgrounds is one of Sanchez’s gifts as a teacher, explains DePaul faculty member Amy Clark.
“I quickly noticed that Jacqueline had a strong asset-based orientation toward working with all children and families, including those from non-dominant sociocultural and linguistic backgrounds,” says Clark, who taught Sanchez in classes on bilingual education and early childhood education. “Her resolute commitment to providing equitable and culturally sustaining educational experiences for children who have been historically marginalized stood out,” adds Clark.
You never know what a child brings to school in their backpack, says Sanchez, recalling a lesson from her early childhood classes. “We’re not talking about school supplies, we’re talking about their home life,” she says. “Are they from an abusive family? Do they have a meal? Do they even have clean clothes?”
Applying what she has learned in the classroom in a real world teaching experience has been eye opening, explains Sanchez. “It put everything I learned in the classroom into practice. At the end of the day, children are children no matter what diverse learning needs they have. You have to get down to their level, you have to have patience,” says Sanchez.
When she completes her student teaching in the fall, Sanchez plans to apply to teach in Chicago Public Schools. Her children all attended Greeley and Sanchez completed her 100-hour bilingual internship at the school. She hopes to one day land at Greeley, where 81% of students come from low-income households.
Paying it forward
As the first in her family to graduate from college, Sanchez is already guiding others to follow the same path. “I get a lot of questions about what to do and how to start, with scholarships and applications, and I try to help them as best I can,” says Sanchez. She is mentoring her third community college scholar through One Million Degrees, an Illinois organization dedicated to providing comprehensive support to low-income, highly motivated community college students.
While Sanchez’s graduation will be momentous for her family, they hope to be celebrating again soon. Sanchez’s oldest child, her daughter, is finishing her first semester of college. A proud Latina of Puerto Rican heritage, Sanchez celebrated with other Latinx DePaul students at a recent ceremony for 2019 grads and their families.
Of her own graduation from DePaul, Sanchez says, “It’s bittersweet. I can’t believe it’s over.” Ever positive, she barely pauses. “But this is the beginning. I just want to be in the classroom making a difference.”