- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (AP) - A Grand Island resident who will soon celebrate her 25th year in the city - who earned a law degree in her native Mexico, who became a U.S. citizen and has helped more than 100 others do the same, has coached all ages from preschoolers to parents, serves as a college recruiter, and taught herself English from a dictionary - will soon hang her own bachelor’s degree from an American college on her wall.

“Take the risk,” Maria Lopez told The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1UcBR7f ). “There is no fail. If you fail, step up again and keep going. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.”

It’s advice that Lopez has lived herself after coming to the United States on a California vacation from her home in Zacetecas, Mexico, and falling in love with the country and the love of her life, Roberto. Her husband, from Jalisco, Mexico, was already a U.S. citizen when he suggested moving to Grand Island to work at the meatpacking plant.

“I thought it was a ghost town,” Lopez said after coming from a larger city. “Where are the people? Where are the buses? But then I could see this is a good place to be - a good place to raise a family.”

Learning English word by word

As the couple’s first child, son Fabian, came along, Lopez scoured the dictionary before every appointment, looking for words to use with the doctor, for words that he may use with her. It was the start to her English and to her teaching others.

Even though she had worked a year in Mexico as an attorney, she didn’t hold the same degree here and could only read English, not speak it. She started working in housekeeping at a local motel. As her English progressed, she became a waitress at a Mexican restaurant. There some customers spoke in English and some in Spanish, so she continued to progress in her speaking. She also started working with a tutor.

Then came her big leap. She applied to be a paraeducator for the Grand Island Public Schools.

“I didn’t really consider myself bilingual, but they did,” she said. “They put me in a kindergarten class to help with students and with parents.”

Lopez said she took in every word from the teacher at Lincoln Elementary as she taught the basics to language and writing to the kindergarten class.

“I was learning, too,” she exclaimed.

But Lopez wasn’t just a student in the classroom where she worked. She also enrolled in classes at Central Community College to earn an associate’s degree.

Along the way, she had two more children, son Javier and daughter Yesenia, and started a cleaning business with her husband.

Becoming an American

She also became a U.S. citizen.

“My husband and children were all citizens. I felt I needed to be, too, to belong,” Lopez said. “I wanted to be part of the community.”

So she studied, tested and became a U.S. citizen.

Eventually, it led to her teaching citizenship classes at the Multicultural Coalition in Grand Island. Every Saturday morning for eight weeks, she teaches reading, writing and civics.

“I love American history. It’s such a beautiful story,” Lopez said. “I think I know more American history than I do about Mexican history.”

While some of the instruction and questions are in both Spanish and English, Lopez is adamant that all answers be in English. That’s to make sure that students won’t err on test questions, such as calling explorer Christopher Columbus by his Spanish name, Cristobal Colon.

She also insists that students learn multiple answers to questions. Instead of naming just one Indian tribe, she insists they name five. When students ask why, she explains that they will be nervous when they go to Omaha to test. Nervousness can cause forgetfulness, so when the one answer blanks from their head, they will have three to four others as back-ups.

“Her classes were interactive and it helped to remember things better,” said citizenship student Angelica Flores. “She explained things clearly. It was entertaining and fun. Everyone attending seemed to enjoy the classes every time we had them. I know I did.”

Lopez even took the time to ensure each student was prepared for the formality of the real test. Don’t sit until told to sit, she always advised.

She even called in Grand Island Police Chief Steve Lamken to give run-through testing in his uniform.

“The uniform is intimidating,” Lopez said. “If my students can make it through that, they can make it through the real test. I want them to come back from the real test and say it was easy.”

So in classes every eight weeks, 12 students at time, four classes each year, Lopez has had more than 100 students earn citizenship.

“It felt good to become a citizen,” Flores said. “As a resident, I felt I could lose that privilege any day, but when I became a citizen, I felt relieved, more secure to be in the United States.”

Finding more ways to teach

Lopez also shared teaching through the Grand Island Public Library’s Prime Time reading program. Spanish-speaking families would gather as a group to hear a children’s book and discuss the book with their children. Lopez helped read and discuss with the families. One book about a daughter’s desire to have her own room in a house full of relatives, always generated great discussions, she said.

“Maria is over-the-top awesome,” said Grand Island librarian Celine Swan.

Swan has worked with Lopez on several different programs, including a youth diversity conference and tours.

“She knows everybody and is all about diversity and treats everybody really kind,” she said. “She is a hard worker.”

Swan then nominated Lopez to serve as a mentor in Grand Island’s Community Youth Council (CYC), which Lopez received and took on.

CYC Director Wendy Meyer-Schmidt said Lopez has helped teens on the council, who come from all four Grand Island high schools, to carry out community service projects, as well as getting involved in city issues.

“She has been on the city government committee for two years where she inspires the youth members to look at city government topics and provide their voice on them,” Meyer-Schmidt said.

Lopez said it’s exciting to her to see and hear the ideas of young people and how they view the world and the community they live in.

“Recently she spent the night outside for an event called “Homeless Night Out,” which created awareness about the issues homeless people face,” CYC student Maricela Paramo said of Lopez. “I’m truly happy that I have been able to work with a leader like Maria who is always happy, selfless and dedicated.”

“Maria is kindhearted and always looking to help others in need or people who want to make Grand Island their home,” Meyer-Schmidt said.

Helping students succeed at college

Ten years ago, Lopez left Grand Island Public Schools to take a grant-funded research job at Central Community College aimed at determining why so many Spanish-speaking students started at the college, but quit after one year. That led to an admissions office opening, where Lopez currently works full time as the diversity coordinator.

“They call me a student recruiter, but I’m really recruiting parents,” Lopez said.

That’s because the education culture in Mexico is different than in the United States, she said, and she works to explain the differences and ease transitions.

In Mexico, children go to school and come home from school. There isn’t a lot of parent interaction with school, as is expected here, Lopez said. When it’s time to go to college, in Mexico, students go to college, which is far less expensive than here, and are assigned the classes they need and they take those classes. Here, it can be overwhelming for a new student to receive a coursebook and be invited to pick their own classes.

Also, parents tend to “hold on” to children until they marry, so the concept of “going away” to college is another difficult concept for some Spanish-speaking parents to grasp, she said. She takes the time to explain expectations and opportunities so that everyone in the family understands.

“If there’s anything at all with the education that I can help with, I’m here,” Lopez said.

With all those jobs, all those community activities, plus having completed serving as a TeamMates mentor from the sixth through 12th grades for a student, Lopez has continued her own education at Doane College. In May, she plans to receive her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

“Look at me. I’m 50 years old and I’m going to graduate,” she said with a laugh. “I landed in the right place.”

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