Although her mother kept insisting her son had a learning disability, teachers didn’t believe her, feeling the boy was just struggling because English wasn’t his first language.
Ana Franco knew differently, and although she was fearful of speaking in front of people, she attended school conferences with her Spanish-speaking mother, serving as a translator and advocating for her brother, even though she was barely a teen herself.
“My mom had other kids so she knew something wasn’t right,” Franco said. “That was hard seeing my mom struggling. There weren’t many people who spoke Spanish in our district so she had to keep trying to tell the teachers he had a learning disability.”
In May, her brother will graduate from high school and she’ll graduate from Illinois State University with a degree in communication sciences disorders, on her way to becoming a bilingual speech-language pathologist. Bridging languages has been a common thread in her life since moving from Mexico at the age of 8.
She didn’t know any English when she started school, and failed first grade. It was hard to make friends, speak up in class, or even raise her hand to ask teachers a question.
“I came in knowing nothing,” she said. “The first few years I was really scared to talk in front of people or say anything because I wasn’t sure it was right. Although it was frustrating to not be able to communicate with my peers and teachers, it taught me the importance of language.”
Franco transferred to a school that offered ESL classes, returning to her neighborhood school in fourth grade. Watching her classmates fly through their writing assignments while she was trying to catch up was difficult, but that just made her dig in more. By high school, she felt comfortable enough that when she heard other Naperville Central High School students talking about Illinois State University, she decided to apply too.
As much as her parents, Eva and Abel Franco, valued education, they couldn’t offer much advice. Her father, Abel Franco, had an agricultural engineering degree from Mexico, but the degree wasn’t recognized here. Her mother studied for her GED and went to school to become a certified nurse assistant.
Franco knew she wanted to work with children with learning disabilities but she didn’t want to teach because of the memories of being in a classroom. When she discovered the CSD major, she realized she could work with children one-on-one or in small groups.
“I want to help children whose language might not be English and do not have the same privileges as their peers to excel in academics,” she said.
She volunteered at Western Avenue Community Center, working with Hispanic children and their families, which led her to double major in Spanish. She also traveled to Chicago public schools with other ISU students to translate during parent-teacher conferences, where she found parents concerned about much more than grades.
“It was pretty hard listening to them talk about how they were being deported or that they were dealing with a lot of struggles economically. They were trying to explain to the teacher why they were falling behind, why they couldn’t do their homework. They couldn’t afford books.”
Franco has a brother, Abel, who followed her to Illinois State. He is a junior studying criminal justice sciences. They’ve both worked their way through college, while also taking out student loans. She is grateful to have received financial support through the University Scholarship; the Mary K. Keiser Scholarship, which is for CSD majors who plan on working with children; and the Helen and Shirley Highland Scholarship, which Lisa and Jeff Charnogorsky ’85 established in honor of his mother and grandmother. Her parents and three brothers will be at commencement celebrating their first college graduate.
“My parents have always told me when we came here, keep trying in school, and if you really want something, work hard and you can achieve it,” Franco said. “I am truly grateful for all the opportunities I have discovered at Illinois State that have led me to where I am today.”