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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

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Aimee Islas (center) with students (from left) Jamari, Kayla, Carlos, Saniyah and Andy at Taylor Leadership Academy. Aimee Islas (center) with students (from left) Jamari, Kayla, Carlos, Saniyah and Andy at Taylor Leadership Academy.

Aztec Pride—In a Stockton Classroom

Aimee Islas returned to her hometown to teach fifth grade, and brought SDSU spirit with her into the classroom.
By Michael Klitzing

If you walk into the fifth grade classroom of Aimee Islas (’18, ’19) at Taylor Leadership Academy in Stockton, you might think you’ve been transported to Montezuma Mesa. The room is decked out with San Diego State University balloons, pennants, flags and banners. There’s an Aztecs mini basketball hoop over the recycling bin.

“Whenever my students have papers or water bottles to throw away, they're able to be like Kawhi Leonard and slam dunk it in," said Islas, a graduate of SDSU’s liberal studies and teacher credential programs.

Inspiring the students to imagine themselves in red and black—or any college colors, for that matter—is the whole point. Taylor Leadership Academy is a school site for AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a national organization that aims to close achievement gaps and prepare students for college in communities traditionally underrepresented in higher education. That’s particularly needed in the diverse Central Valley city of Stockton, where an estimated one in four residents live in poverty.

Every year, each Taylor teacher is given the opportunity to theme their classroom as a particular university. There are classes representing nearby institutions, such as University of California, Berkeley, Sacramento State and Chico State. For Islas, who grew up in Stockton and was inspired to return after graduation to teach in her home community, her desire to teach kids about SDSU went beyond pride in her alma mater.

“I don't think I would be the teacher I am today if it wasn't for my education at San Diego State,” she said. “I also wanted to let my students know that, 'Hey I went eight hours away to go to college—that possibility is just as real for you, as well.'”

Meaningful connections

As part of her effort to demystify academia for these would-be first generation college students, Islas started a monthly series of teleconference Q&As with SDSU faculty and alumni which she dubbed “Ask an Aztec.”

“We had questions about financial aid, we had questions about grades you need to get,” Islas said. “I think the overall reason I picked San Diego State is that it was the most supportive college I could ever ask for.” Having professors take time to talk with her 23 students is intended to help show that.

The first SDSU personality to be beamed into the classroom was Melissa Soto, associate professor of mathematics education and one of Islas’ mentors. Soto, herself a former Stockton resident, used iconic Hepner Hall as a backdrop as she answered such queries as “Is college hard?” and “What were you like as a fifth grader?”

“I wanted them to see me,” Soto said. “I wanted them to see that there’s a Hispanic woman who does math, and that they can do it too. I also wanted them to know that professors are human. 

“I remember when I graduated from college, I never thought I could get my master’s or even think about a Ph.D. because that’s for really smart people and that’s not who I am. That’s why I really wanted to show the students— here I am, a brown woman, and I’m making it here at the university level.”

The teleconference ended with Soto leading the class in the SDSU Fight Song, which Islas had taught them at the start of the school year. Later that week at their college pep rally, Taylor’s classes competed to see who could belt out their respective fight songs the loudest. Islas’ class won.

“All my students want to visit San Diego State now,” Islas said. “From not even knowing it was a university less than a month ago to now all wanting to visit it, I think it shows how meaningful meeting Dr. Soto was for them.”