You are here

Better together: Leah Barrera and Jackie Ochoa

by Erica Borowski '16 (journalism)

Leah Barrera and Jackie Ochoa are best friends by nature, sisters at heart. Friends since 7th grade, the two have found unity through similar Hispanic roots, a home base in Eugene, and a shared passion for teaching. Together they are courageous, inspiring, fearless, and seemingly unstoppable.

Both junior educational foundation (EdF) majors, Leah and Jackie plan to apply to the UOTeach program next year, and hope to teach at the same elementary school one day.

Although Jackie didn’t always know she wanted to be a teacher, she always knew she wanted to work with kids. As the oldest female in her immediate family, it became second nature to take care of her younger cousins and help them with homework.

Leah’s inspiration to become a teacher began in high school as she developed a strong interest in the different inequalities within the educational system.

Leah explains, "Taking classes here at UO made me more excited about [teaching] and actually decide to go into the educational foundation program because it is social-justice based." 

The two also are members of GANAS and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA); programs dedicated to encouraging Latino students reach a higher education and receive help outside the classroom.

In English MEChA translates to "chicanos of Aztec descent." It is a national organization that motivates Latino students to further their education, and learn more about their history and culture. When Leah and Jackie transitioned to high school, they created their own MEChA chapter since their school didn't have one. With help from their guidance counselor they were able to create a pipeline for MEChA in the North Eugene region.

Co-founded in 1996 by COE adjunct professor Roscoe Caron, GANAS promotes bilingual bicultural leaders and provides tutoring and mentorship to Latino students at Kelly Middle School. Jackie says she connected with Caron because of his awareness of cultural biases within the education system as a non-member of the Latino community. The word ganas means "desire" in Spanish, modeled after Edward James Olmos' character from Stand and Deliver where he emphasizes that desire is needed in order to achieve your goals.

Jackie's favorite part about being involved in GANAS when she was younger was the overwhelming support and guidance she received. Through her mentor she was exposed to college at a young age (specifically the UO) and began to consider her options.

"I’m the first person in my family to go to college, so it’s something that wasn’t really talked about in my house," she says. “And I had no idea even how to start the process, so I got a lot of motivation for it early on."

The education program at the COE is a way for Leah to combat the difficulties that some students face in the classroom. In one of her EdF classes they discuss the Oregon Statewide Statistics and how the teaching staff is extremely disproportionate to the students they teach. As the group of diverse students continues to grow, the teaching staff remains the same — unable to relate or understand what goes on outside the classroom.

Leah clarifies, "A lot of times the teacher might assume they didn’t do their homework because they’re lazy or not trying. And so, going into the education system, it’s a way to fight that kind of internalized racism, and try to create a more safe space in the classroom."

The most powerful and life-changing experience they shared occurred their junior year of high school. Each year MEChA hosts a regional conference where students from different high schools and colleges come together to give workshops and collaborate about upcoming projects. Their high school was chosen to host the conference after a bidding competition and Leah and Jackie spent the following summer planning and preparing for the event of a lifetime.

During this time a school in Tucson, Arizona banned an ethnic studies course geared towards Latino students in that area due to their high dropout rate. Students and faculty outraged by the inability to learn about their culture created a documentary Precious Knowledge that led the affected community through their journey.

Leah says, "We actually got to bring them to our high school from Arizona, and they spoke at our event and we showed the film. We fundraised money so that they could get lawyers and fight in Supreme Court. It was so powerful to get all these people crammed together in our little auditorium. It took a lot of work and effort from everyone, and all of us grew from the event."

The day of the event their guidance counselor received a hate letter specifically targeting their MEChA chapter. Feeling sad and discouraged, members of their group were able to have an open discussion and empower each other to move forward from the note.

The hate letter not only reinforced the importance of their work, but also brought their community even closer, including members from other school districts. The girls described this as a "great learning experience" and have grown both together and individually.

Reflecting on the experience, Jackie says, "In the end people are going to do hurtful stuff and horrible things in the world, but you can’t let them bring you down. Especially being a person of color and a minority, it’s always going to happen—but you can’t let them diminish the work that you’re doing."

Belongs to: