Her story of resilience through 9/11, COVID

Student speaker Elizabeth Gerena said, "I wonder how many of you were influenced to become educators by the teachers and mentors you had in your lives.”

Photos by Ralph Freso/Friday afternoon slideshow

Teachers:

They are the center.

They are the light.

They are the DIFFERENCE.

Elizabeth Gerena is a teacher.

And she owes who she is in great part to her unfathomly exceptional teachers teachers who shaped the life of the Puerto Rican daughter of immigrants who grew up in the concrete jungle of New York City, the product of public housing and public schools. It was the perfect recipe, if history has anything to say about it, for a bleak future.

“But, you see, God had a different destiny for me,” Gerena said Friday afternoon at GCU Arena, where she was the final student speaker in a whirlwind three days of Fall Commencement ceremonies for Grand Canyon University’s nontraditional students.

A graduate with her decorated mortar board during the Friday Fall Commencement afternoon session.

It’s because “God placed very special teachers in my path … who genuinely cared for me and helped me recognize my potential; they outwardly rooted for me and challenged me to try new things.”

“I wonder how many of you were influenced to become educators by the teachers and mentors you had in your lives,” she said to her fellow “beautiful human beings” in the audience as she remembered hers.

For Gerena, there was the third-grade teacher who encouraged her love of reading and pushed her to learn about her Puerto Rican culture even before Hispanic Heritage Month was a thing.

God placed very special teachers in my path ... who genuinely cared for me and helped me recognize my potential; they outwardly rooted for me and challenged me to try new things.

Educator Elizabeth Gerena, Fall Commencement student speaker

There was her high school marketing teacher, too, who encouraged her to run for president of her high school leadership club, DECA, and to compete against fellow New York DECA students.

That same marketing teacher also “called me out on my stuff when she needed to,” Gerena said, one day catching her outside the building. She was skipping class so she could hang out with her boyfriend, Jose.

“She said, ‘You cut MY class to hang out with HIM?” Gerena said, recalling that day with a smile as her fellow College of Education graduates smiled right along with her. “In my defense, 34 years later, he’s sitting in the audience right now.”

That’s when Gerena shared the day that was her emotionally toughest as an educator.

She was in in her third year of teaching and 5 months pregnant in a classroom filled with 3-year-olds who were transitioning to their first big-school experience.

Gerena, who moved to Arizona from New York, spoke of teachers' resilience during the pandemic and Sept. 11, 2001.

“My phone rang and on the other end of the line was my husband, a New York City police officer, who tells me that he’s OK, not to panic,” Gerena said.

It was Sept. 11, 2001, and terrorists had just attacked the city not 2 miles away from the school.

“Shoving all of the fear and anxiety down, my colleagues and I had to push forward and make sure the children in our classrooms felt safe and secure while the world was in chaos around us,” she said.

It wouldn’t be the only time in her career as a teacher the world would crumble all around her.

The past three years have been tough.

During the global pandemic, teachers had to embrace technology that was new to many of them as they prepared to teach remotely. They once again had to shove all of the fear and anxiety down and push forward to try to reassure their students.

There was the social unrest, too.

Those experiences brought to mind another word to describe teachers resilient as Gerena asked her fellow educators to reflect on the power they hold: “Did you know that you wonderful human beings have the power to change the outcomes of the students you serve? Did you know that, once you are recognized as someone who truly cares for them, you can be the catalyst for changing the trajectory of your students’ lives?” just as her own teachers changed her life.

Going through the pandemic, she said she realized all the learning yet to do and all the 21st-century skills she wanted to acquire in the ever-changing world of education.

It was time, she said, for the teacher to become the student once again, so she enrolled at GCU to pursue her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction to add to her list of degrees two bachelor’s degrees, one in early childhood education and the other in education, along with a master’s degree in special education.

She spoke about her “crash course” in GCU’s learning management system and how, in earning her first degree (before learning management systems), everything had to be done live and in-person “without the perk of hiding behind the screen in PJs and messy buns, which became a daily uniform for many of us in 2020.”

Graduates celebrate.

Not only was it time for the teacher to become the student, but it was time, too, for a change.

She and her husband packed the family’s car, left their 800-square-foot apartment in New York and moved to Arizona, where they had visited family and fell in love with the landscape, openness and peace and quiet.

But whether from the peace and quiet of Arizona or the hustle and bustle of New York, Gerena said teachers often find themselves in impossible positions, resilient in whatever the situation.

“Here we are,” she said. “ … We are showing up for our students, showing up for ourselves, in an effort to improve our lives and those of the students we serve.”

It’s because our resilient teachers, centers and lights of our communities, truly make a difference.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.

***

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GCU News: Other Fall Commencement slideshows: Wednesday afternoon Thursday morning Thursday afternoon Friday morning Friday afternoon

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