The Value in Background Experiences – Donna Bahena Bustos

At Meredith, Donna Bahena Bustos, ’18, ’20 (M.A. Teaching), learned to appreciate her background.

Now, she teaches her students to do the same.

Since moving to Raleigh, N.C., from Acapulco, Mexico, at the age of seven, Donna has spent the last 18 years of her life learning to adapt to different cultures and to use that experience in a positive way.

“My background makes me strong. Growing up, I had to really step up and do a lot of things at home that my parents couldn’t do because they couldn’t speak English as well as I could,” said Donna. “But living in one culture and moving to another has given me a more global perspective of the world.”

The challenges of moving to a new country and learning a second language inspired Donna to help others in similar situations. And her experiences influenced her career choice.

“I always knew I wanted to teach, but I hadn’t given thought to the possibility of becoming an English as a second language (ESL) teacher until I looked back on my past and remembered the good times I’d had as an ESL student when I moved to the U.S.,” said Donna. “I remembered my friends, the fun games and activities, and how sad I was when I placed out of ESL in the fourth grade. I also remember the joy I felt when I finally reached the reading level to be able to read Harry Potter. I want to provide the same experience for new English learners.”

After transferring to Meredith through the Wings program, Donna was accepted into Meredith’s Early Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program, which allows undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in teaching the opportunity to take graduate level courses in their field of interest as a senior.

“Participating in the Early M.A.T. program saved me time and money,” said Donna. “Having taken M.A.T. courses as an undergraduate student allowed me more time to work as a full-time teacher assistant at a local elementary school while completing my master’s. I also had fewer credits to pay for as a graduate student since I had already completed them in undergrad.”

After graduating from the M.A.T. program, Donna accepted a role as a dual language kindergarten teacher for Orange County Schools, where she uses the skills and values she learned at Meredith on a daily basis.

The education department’s focus on culturally responsive teaching is a point she reflects on often. “My professors encouraged me to use my students’ strengths and backgrounds to inform my teaching,” she said.

Before she started the master’s program, Donna was primarily focused on helping students develop English language proficiency and did not have an understanding of the role the native language should play in the academic and social development of students. But when she began student teaching, she was encouraged to use bilingual education to support newcomers.

“While English language proficiency is part of our goal as dual language teachers, it should not come without providing students the opportunity to develop other cognitive skills using the support of their native language,” Donna said.

Allowing her students to see the value in bringing their background experiences to school allowed Donna to see the value in doing the same for herself, personally and professionally.

“I finally understand that it is okay to use both languages to express myself in ways that are unique to my identity,” she said. “It is an honor and privilege to grant my students the permission to do the same.”