When she was nine, Veronica (Lopez) Aguila emigrated from Mexico and settled in Galt with her parents and eight siblings. After skipping fourth and fifth grade, learning English in a single year, graduating from Galt High School at 15, and being the first in her family to graduate from college, Aguila is now the Director of the English Learner Support Division at the California Department of Education.
“My father moved us to Galt to have a better life than our life in Mexico. He had been living in America and sending money home to my mother. We would only see him at Christmas time,” Aguila said. “It was a huge sacrifice he and my mother had made to be able to feed all nine kids. He was a migrant field worker and once we came here, most of us worked alongside with him.”
Aguila attended Fairsite Elementary School, where she was placed in sixth grade at the age of nine. She was intended to skip a grade in Mexico and her teachers believed she would benefit from being in the same class as her older sister while they were learning English.
When she was 13, she started working alongside her family in the fields.
“I remember waking up at 4 a.m. and driving through the morning fog to get to Lodi to be able to prune the grape vines in the winter,” Aguila recalled, “and in the summer picking cherries in Lodi and working in the tomato belts in Stockton. Working in the fields left me feeling exhausted. It is the most backbreaking work I have ever done.”
At Galt High School, Aguila found herself surrounded by new opportunities. With the help of her physical education teacher, Ms. Gonzales, she was able to purchase a tennis racquet and join the team alongside her sister. The team’s away matches gave her the first opportunity to see more of California.
Despite facing bullying for being an immigrant and an English learner throughout her school years, Aguila also found tremendous support. Her school counselor, Mr. Riley, was the first to encourage her to apply for college, something that she had never thought would be a possibility for her. When she graduated from GHS in 1982, she was 15 years old and had been accepted to study at California State University, Sacramento.
She commuted to school and, since she was still expected to contribute to the family income, she worked three jobs on top of taking 21 units a semester. Aguila graduated in four years at the age of 19 with a liberal studies degree, a Bilingual Cross-Cultural Teaching Credential, and a minor in computer science.
“I remember thinking success would be graduating high school. After finishing college, I thought success was having a house and a car and plenty of food to eat,” Aguila said. “As I continued my educational career and earned a masters and later, in 2015, a doctoral degree in educational leadership, I have come to realize the degrees assist you to have what you need in terms of economic stability, but what gives me the feeling of success is knowing I am helping others achieve the same things I have achieved. I feel happy knowing I am implementing policies that will provide equitable services to kids like me that immigrate not knowing English and who have the hard life of working in the fields picking crops.”
Aguila started her career teaching third grade in a bilingual classroom, a combined fifth and sixth grade, and high school algebra and computer science. She quickly became a demonstrating teacher, responsible for modeling to other teachers how to conduct science experiments and encourage a cooperative learning approach. She also taught in a multilingual first grade with the goal of teaching the students English. After eight years of teaching, she became a Reading Specialist and English Language Development (ELD) coordinator in Elk Grove.
In 1999, Aguila joined the State Department of Education as an Education Program Consultant in the Migrant Program and went on to hold several leadership positions there. She also had the opportunity to serve as the Associate Director of the California Mini-Corps program, a statewide program that hires former migrant students to tutor current migrant students in elementary schools. The program helps the tutors prepare for a future teaching career while also earning money, and Aguila herself was involved while she was in college.
“For the last five years, I have been fortunate to consolidate my experience to continue to serve the very unique needs of English Learners, immigrant students, and migrant students,” Aguila said of her current position with the California Department of Education. “As the Director of the English Learner Support Division, I oversee state and federal programs for English learners, immigrant students and migrant students.”
According to Aguila, there are approximately 1.2 million English Learners in California, most of who were born in the U.S.
“Our diversity is our strength in this state, and we need to increase the opportunities for higher education for all students by providing them with the types of services they need when they need them,” she said.
The goal, she says, is to get more bilingual teachers in California classrooms and increase the number of multilingual programs being offered so students are able to both learn English and maintain their first language.
“I am proud to say I am a U.S. citizen now, but I am also proud to say I am Mexican and I believe every child should be proud of their language, their culture, their family and their roots,” Aguila said. “They need to be proud of who they are and feel society values them for who they are. As a society, we all have a social contract, and we need to pay it forward and help others succeed.”