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AlumniJanuary 23, 2023

New Teacher Gives Voice to Spanish Speakers

Written By: Antoinette Grajeda

Fatima Bonilla, UAFS class of ’22, grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, so she did not learn English until she started school. Then, the native Arkansan served as a translator for her parents who moved to the United States from El Salvador. It’s common for children of Hispanic immigrants to help their parents communicate, and Bonilla thought her situation was normal because it’s all she knew. 

“Once I started getting older, I realized my siblings that are much younger than me – they didn’t have to go through that, and so I see the differences in those generations,” she says. 

Armed with her recently-earned degree in elementary education from the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, Bonilla accepted a job teaching fourth grade students at Trusty Elementary School where she is determined to have a positive impact on the immigrant community. The Fort Smith school has a high population of English as a Second Language learners whom Bonilla intends to support.

“The community here, there’s a lot of students that were like me growing up, that their parents only speak Spanish, and it’s hard for them to go through school …. They have the support but only to a certain extent when their parents can only understand so much,” she said. “I never had a teacher that looked like me growing up, and so I wanted to provide this to the community here.”

In her current role, Bonilla wants to bridge the gap between parents and their children’s education.

“Communication with parents, I think, is the big number one thing that I really want to work on, just to improve their academics and understand where they’re standing in school and how they can help them succeed further on in life,” she said. 

Bonilla knew she wanted to be a teacher by the time she entered kindergarten. She got involved with afterschool care and camp programs to make sure teaching was truly what she wanted to do. When it came time to go to college, she attended UAFS “because it’s home” and because she received enough scholarships to cover her costs. 

“I always knew what I wanted to do…, and UAFS really helped me see that and gave me the opportunity to apply myself in positions where, although it might be a struggle, I know at the end of it it’s going to give me much more benefit and growth,” she said.

Bonilla was confident in her ability to be a day-one-ready teacher because she completed an enhanced internship during her final semester at UAFS. As part of the program, she assumed all the responsibilities of a public-school educator when she taught fifth and sixth grade math at Hackett Elementary School. 

She also participated in an AmeriCorps national service program called Jumpstart. UAFS was the first university in Arkansas to offer the program, which works to improve preschool students’ language, literacy, and social-emotional skills. Jumpstart gave Bonilla the opportunity to go into the classroom and work with students one-on-one. Bonilla did not attend preschool herself, so this program showed her the importance of learning skills like literacy at a young age. 

“I now understand how important reading is, and I’m going to instill that in all my students from here on out,” she said.

Through Jumpstart, Bonilla often worked with students in low-income communities. and seeing children “in settings where the preschool isn’t the best” reinforced her desire to always be a big advocate for kids. The experience also made it more difficult for her to not take work home, but she said that’s okay.

“I think it’s important to have teachers like that because they not only care about (their students’) education, but their well-being,” she said. “And if they know that you care about their well-being, they’re going to do much better in their academics as well.” 

During her undergraduate program, Bonilla was a member of groups like Future Educators Association Professionals and Kappa Delta Pi, an educational honors society. She also served as a UAFS Ambassador, leading guests on campus tours where she shared her personal story as well as advice about how to make the most of the university’s many offerings. 

“I’ve loved my time at UAFS and I always tell the people that come see a tour it’s really up to you to take advantage of the opportunities that this school offers because it offers a lot,” she said. “I could have turned down so many things, but it wouldn’t have got me to the place where I am today where I’m super excited to be a teacher and I’m super prepared.”

By -- Antoinette Grajeda

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