In a middle school art class in Cuenca, Ecuador, the teacher was having trouble including a student with a visual impairment in activities. Sylvia Montijo ’19, assisting in the classroom through a Syracuse Abroad internship, began working with the student to accommodate his disability. She connected with him, gained his trust and learned how to best work with him. For one project, she helped the teenager create a superhero-fish character out of a mix of materials, letting him feel each piece and then tell her where it should be placed. “He got really excited by the activities we were doing,” Montijo says. “I felt a huge sense of happiness and fulfillment to see him enjoy art class because of how creative we got working together.”
For Montijo, it was an opportunity to blend her academic interests with dynamic learning experiences in a global setting. “It was a perfect way for me to combine my majors,” says Montijo, a May graduate who majored in international relations in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and in selected studies in education in the School of Education, with a focus on cultural foundations of education. “Everything just fit and I was like, wow, this is really what I want to do.”
Joining Teach For America
Montijo will continue her work in education as a member of Teach For America, which recruits leaders to address educational inequity in underserved schools and their communities. Montijo, who applied to the program in spring 2018 and was accepted following a rigorous interview process, will be assigned to a middle school in New York City, where she will be a special education teacher. “Teach For America values diversity, inclusion and equity and aligns very well with my own ideologies around education,” she says. “I’m ready to do it.”
Throughout her time as a Syracuse University student, Montijo built on experience after experience. She loves kids and working for three years as a Syracuse University Literacy Corps tutor at Dr. King Elementary School proved influential to her career direction, helping her realize her passion for education and teaching. “In our diverse world, we need educators who are open to learning and understand that they, too, are learning in the classroom with the students they’re teaching,” says Montijo, who added her selected studies in education major after her first year with Literacy Corps. “I learned that through Literacy Corps because of the teachers I worked with.”
Tutoring and Mentoring Through Syracuse Connections
Montijo grew up in San Diego and, after an eighth-grade trip to the East Coast, decided she wanted to attend college in the east. Ultimately, Syracuse proved to be the right fit. After being accepted, the first-generation college student received a federally funded Student Support Services Scholarship and acclimated to campus through SummerStart, a bridge program for incoming students. In her first year on campus, along with working for Literacy Corps, Montijo volunteered at the North Side Learning Center, tutoring Muslim refugee students. Throughout college, she took advantage of offerings from the Office of Multicultural Affairs, including serving as a mentor for its fullCIRCLE program that pairs upper-class students with first-year or transfer students for guidance on college life.
Montijo, who will pursue a master’s degree at the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York City, spent her entire junior year abroad, studying a semester each in Ecuador and Chile. She appreciated learning in different cultural environments and the experience also pointed her toward a long-term goal: to build schools, train teachers and bring resources to schools in Latin America. “I loved being abroad for a year,” she says. “It was a lot of personal, professional and academic growth.”
Opportunities for Personal Development at Syracuse
Montijo credits her Syracuse experience with helping her find her voice and come into her own. “Syracuse has really prepared me personally,” she says. “I was given lots of opportunities for personal growth and I took them.”
Montijo likes to describe her academic focus as the sociology of education. From learning about different cultures and the impact of globalization to the sociology of race, class and gender to racial inequality, disability studies and the history of the American school, she says her studies helped her understand the interrelationships among these topics and prepared her for work in front of the classroom. As a McNair Scholar, she augmented her studies last summer with a class on research methods and continued a disability-focused research project that she’s been working on for two years. As part of the research, throughout the school year she conducted interviews about classroom discipline and discipline measures with Syracuse City School District teachers who work with students with disabilities. “When you understand the importance of students’ life stories and their identities, then you’re more understanding of getting to know them as people,” she says.
Importance of Community
More than anything, Montijo places great value on community. She emphasizes how important education is to transforming systems that marginalize individuals and understands how influential teachers can be in students’ lives. In her Teach For America classroom, Montijo wants to connect personally with her students and their families. “It’s about building community, for me,” she says. “The same way I’m helping them, they’re helping me, and I hope they realize we’re all going through this together. Having that relationship gives me the sense that I’m part of something bigger.”