Illinois State senior Raquel Armas has wanted to become a teacher since their freshman year of high school. Armas grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn, and was inspired to pursue a career path in education by one of their high school English teachers.

Fast forward to April of last year, when Armas, a secondary English Education major, received the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) ELATE Geneva Smitherman Cultural Diversity Grant, an award that current and future educators across the country compete for every year. Members of historically underrepresented groups in NCTE and ELATE (English Language Arts Teacher Educators) are eligible for this grant, which offers up to two $500 awards for presenters new to the NCTE Annual Convention.

“Receiving this grant affirmed the work I have been doing and has pushed me to better myself and my teaching practices for my students,” said Armas. “It reminded me that even though this is the work I have been called to do, there is always a place for growth and reflection along the way.”

Typically, the grant would fund travel expenses and costs to attend the NCTE Convention that was scheduled to be held in Colorado last year. However, due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the convention was moved online, so teachers who won the grant could put the money toward their classrooms or in support of their educational aspirations.

Assistant Professor of English Dr. Danielle Lillge encouraged Armas to apply for the grant last spring and assisted them throughout the application process.

“Part of the process was just affirming for and with them all of their strengths and all of the things they bring to the table,” said Lillge. “They have a rich collection of already established practices and experiences, and part of supporting them in the application process was helping them identify what those are, and talking about how those are unique assets worthy of consideration for the award.”

With support from Lillge and Director of English Education Dr. Maggie Morris Davis, Armas started working on their application, which consisted of a letter of recommendation from Lillge and Morris Davis, and two brief letters Armas wrote.

One of Armas’ letters covered their preprofessional background, and the other outlined their proposals on socially just classroom frameworks, Critical Assessment Conversations and Design in English Education Programs and Future is Now Conference: Discourse around the Gender Queer Lens. These proposals are personally important to Armas as a Latinx, queer, female teacher candidate.

“We don’t usually see undergraduates get this grant, so that kind of scared me because I was like ‘What’s the point?’” said Armas. “But after thinking it over, I realized that I’ll never know if I don’t go for it, and the worst I could get was a rejection letter, but at least I tried.”

The rejection letter that Armas was anticipating never came. Instead, they woke up to an email from NCTE congratulating them as the newest ELATE Geneva Smitherman Cultural Diversity Grant recipient. Usually, educators who receive this grant have already been teaching on their own for a while, or even hold multiple degrees in education. One of two winners, Armas stood out as an undergraduate student teacher who hasn’t yet led a classroom of their own but has already proved all they are capable of achieving as an educator.

Last November, Armas uploaded their 10-minute recorded presentation on their proposals to the NCTE website, and then attended the convention via Zoom. The grant not only provided Armas with a chance to share their work with other educators nationwide, but also supplied them with invaluable knowledge that they plan to use throughout their teaching career.

“One of the days of the convention I accepted my grant and gave a speech,” said Armas. “The other days I got to view presentations or join breakout rooms, so I was able to talk with other people from across the country, and it was just awesome to learn from everybody.”

Armas is proud to recognize the tremendous growth they’ve made since first starting at Illinois State, and expressed that they would not be where they are today without the professors, mentors, and colleagues they’ve met at the University.  

“The English Department has really been the backbone to who I am and has helped me learn ways to introduce socially just ELA into my classroom,” said Armas. “It’s about finding those deep-rooted problems and really challenging them.”

Armas plans to help amplify their students’ voices and to encourage them to run with their ideas. Armas also wants to foster diversity through teaching content that all of their students can connect to, and to provide a space where they can be honest and have conversations surrounding important issues such as racism. Armas emphasized that lived experiences will shape interpretations of literature, and this is something they will keep at the forefront of their lessons moving forward.

“I want to create a classroom environment where everyone feels safe, understood, and heard—a place where they can grow by learning about themselves and about the people around them that they’re interacting with,” Armas said.

Lillge emphasized the substantial promise Armas has as a future teacher and is confident that they will be a leader in the education field.

“They’re the kind of teacher who will continue to study their practice,” said Lillge. “What’s exciting to me is how their application and the work that they did to prepare set some really important groundwork that they’ll continue to do and study in their own classroom one day.”

Armas is looking forward to having a classroom of their own after completing student teaching this semester and graduating in May. Armas hopes to find a position teaching English at a high school like the one they attended, with a diverse student body that is eager to learn.

Armas also has an opportunity to travel to China and teach children English for a year, which depends on how circumstances surrounding COVID-19 safety progress in the upcoming months. Armas has an endorsement to teach at the middle grades level as well, and their ultimate goal is to return to school for their master’s degree and take a position as a college professor.

No matter where they end up, Armas credits Illinois State for providing the foundation that will allow them to get there.

“Going through ISU’s courses really opened my eyes to what it means to teach English, especially socially just ELA,” said Armas. “I was surrounded with people who had the same goals as me as a future educator and provided a really great environment to foster my educational growth and to bring it to where I wanted to be.”