Hall of Fame
From Migrant Farm Worker to Nationally Recognized Educator
Born and raised by her grandmother in a small village in Michoacan, Mexico, Irasema Salcido moved to the United States at the age of 14 to join her four older siblings and parents. Throughout her teens, Irasema worked in Californian farm fields, picking strawberries from dawn to dusk alongside her family. She knew little to no English when she arrived in America, and she struggled to learn the complexities of the language while attending Loara and Bolsa Grande High Schools. Even then, she wanted two things: to become someone of substance, and to make her parents proud.
"They sacrificed so much for us," Irasema remembers, "working in the fields and barely providing for their family." She attributes her success to the sacrifices her parents made for her and her siblings. Today she is happy to note her father, Belizario Pedraza, indeed is very proud of her accomplishments.
It was happenstance that Irasema walked onto the Santa Ana College campus after high school and learned, to her surprise, that community college classes were offered free of charge. She recalls that the prospect of working full-time to support herself through school, though incredibly daunting, was a good incentive to avoid a lifetime as a migrant farm worker. Her hardened drive and work ethic allowed her to work in the fields, a shoe store, a department store, an office, and a bank just to support herself and her family as she passed her classes.
Perhaps the most important job she had, though, was as an outreach counselor to disadvantaged youth. By encouraging minorities to pursue college, Irasema knew she had found her calling. She understood firsthand how difficult it is for immigrant students to stay in school. She dreamed of ways she could make the process easier for struggling students to achieve the college dream.
Santa Ana College helped her make her dream a reality. Once at Santa Ana, she found her women's studies classes empowering and secured a mentor to help her with her writing skills. Irasema credits the college's Tutoring Center with helping her get through college; even so, it took her four years to earn a two-year degree. "Without Santa Ana College and the support I received there, I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I've achieved," she notes. "Community colleges are there to help people like me who have very few options. I owe so much to Santa Ana College and the opportunities I had there; teachers who really care and a life that became my new life, my other life."
After Santa Ana College, Irasema transferred to Cal State Fullerton and continued to work for student affirmative action, a cause that was increasingly becoming her passion. "I wanted to be able to tell others about college because we need more minorities to go to college," she said. "Student affirmative action opened my eyes to the opportunity to do something to help others."
After graduating from CSUF, she worked for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Irasema was persuaded by her husband-to-be's suggestion to pursue a master's degree in education at Harvard University, an experience she remembers as difficult but ultimately rewarding. Upon earning her master's, she became a high school administrator in Washington, D.C., only to be frustrated that many of her students were graduating without knowing how to read, write or multiply.
In 1997, pregnant with her fifth child, Irasema decided to take a huge risk – she opened her own charter school. Named for Cesar Chavez, the school sent the message to students that even if they came from humble beginnings, they could do great things.
Her first Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy had 60 students. Today, there are four schools with 1,400 students. Now a nationally recognized expert and advocate for charter schools and underserved students, Irasema recently retired after running the schools for 16 years.
"It was very challenging to be a pioneer for charter schools, especially because I was also raising a family of my own," she admits. But by teaching students from poverty-stricken neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence about public policy and requiring them to take action on issues that concern them, Irasema showed that they have the power to take control and impact their community. Indeed, she passionately believes that access to higher education for all students, no matter their background, is critical to everyone having an equal chance to achieve the American Dream and create change.
"I realize what college can do in one's life," she declared. "I urge them to discover their passion and decide what they want to change. The solutions are in the hands of our students – they will become adults and impact what's going on in their communities." When students leave the charter high schools, "the results are priceless because their lives are changed forever."
Irasema was a 2005 Cal State Fullerton Vision & Visionaries honoree and she has addressed Congress on the topic of charter schools and underserved students. Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network presented her with its Use Your Life Award and she received the Republican National Committee's Trail Award for dedication to civil and public service. Most recently, she was recognized as a Washingtonian of the Year by
Washington Magazine for using her life to help make the Washington area a better place to live, and she was featured for her work on the Visionaries 19th Season in Public Television.
She is happy to be receiving this award from Santa Ana College and dedicates it to her parents and all immigrant parents who make so many sacrifices in order to offer their children a better life. She knows without her experience at Santa Ana she might not be where she is today.
Irasema lives in Maryland with her husband, Robert, a Washington, D.C. attorney. They have two teenage sons at home and three older children attending far-flung, highly regarded colleges and universities.