June 04, 2013

Higher Education

Karen Perez helps Latino families envision a future that includes college.
Doctoral student Karen Perez helps Latino families envision the future.

by Dave Jarecki


As a full-time kindergarten teacher since 1998, Karen Perez has had ample opportunity to be around young, active minds, and to hear the big dreams that children share. And she is unabashed in working toward a big dream of her own: making sure kids, with the support of their families, have the option to go to college wherever they wish. While some believe that the process of envisioning college should begin in middle or even high school, Perez feels it needs to start earlier—in kindergarten, in fact.

“Research shows that when young students have a picture of what college looks like, they are more prepared to follow that educational path. I believe they need to form that picture early.” Perez, who is pursuing a Doctor of Education in Leadership degree at Lewis & Clark, immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador at the age of seven. So she understands that this is more urgent for Latino families and students, where access to higher education may not always seem tangible or practical.

Scholarship Dollars Help Pay It Forward
Perez-DaSilva has received a number of scholarships to support her doctoral program studies, including the Educational Leadership Diversity Scholarship, the Viola and James Gale Scholarship, and the Hearst Foundation Scholarship. “The program at Lewis & Clark with an equity focus was my best fit,” says Perez-Da-Silva. “Through a combination of federal student loans, scholarships from Lewis & Clark benefactors and the Hispanic chamber of commerce, I am getting the opportunity to work toward creating a more equitable education for Latino and Mexican students and their families.” Learn more about contributing to a graduate school scholarship fund.

“It’s important for families to be part of this process, especially when the idea of going to college is a new one. When parents are involved and invested, students truly have the foundational support they can turn to when things get complicated or confusing.”  

Recently, Perez created a link between Lewis & Clark and her kindergarten class, leading a group of five- and six-year-old students and their families to spend a day at college. Fellow doctoral candidate Cindi Swingen, who is also an instructor in Lewis & Clark’s teacher education department, helps coordinate the program, which gives families a chance to sit in on special classes designed for them and taught by graduate faculty.  

“Creating this opportunity for very young students and their parents is an action step that helps kick-start the process in an exciting and hands-on way. But the work certainly doesn’t stop there.”

Motivated by the classroom and by her students

A few years ago, while taking a continuing education seminar, Perez was disappointed when the topic turned to the disparity of high school graduation rates across ethnic groups.

“Data showed that, on average, 9 out of 10 Caucasian students will graduate from high school. Meanwhile, only 4 of 10 Latino students will do the same. This started my thinking about how the education system could better serve Latino students, and how Latino families could become more involved.

Perez decided to jump in and work to change what she saw as an equity and accessibility gap.

“I’d volunteer when my elementary school students would visit the middle school, wearing my big yellow T-shirt so they could find me in the hallway. Eventually I did the same at the high school, and started doing parent education groups. Still, I knew something was missing.”

Then last year, she ran into a girl who’d been one of her first kindergarten students. Now in her late teens, the girl told Perez she was stuck trying to figure out the college application process.

“Running into kids from my first few classes is a trip through time. This particular student didn’t know where to begin with the college process. It was near the end of the fall semester, and we planned to meet up after winter break. When we did, 15 of her friends came along and said they felt the same way.”

This led to a larger gathering, which included school officials, members of the chamber of commerce, and families. She took the opportunity to boost the students’ confidence, even as they admitted to feeling overwhelmed.

“I reinforced the fact that they’ve made it through high school, and reminded them that they each knew someone who hadn’t made it. And that’s the most frustrating part for me, knowing that some of my kindergarten students haven’t made it through high school.”

From teacher to student

In the doctoral program at Lewis & Clark, Perez has found a supportive environment in which she has broadened her research and actions around creating greater educational equity.

“When I started looking into the Educational Leadership program, I was encouraged to see that equity was a major component. That’s where I wanted to put my focus. People in the university get that piece. Secondly, I’ve been grateful for the support I’ve received with my writing. English is not my primary language, and the program is writing intensive. I’ve had the chance to develop my own style and process here.”

Perez is entering the final research phase of her studies. Her project looks at the roles that Latin American and Mexican mothers play in influencing the educational trajectory of their children—a direct tie in to the work she started doing on her own years ago.

“Families are truly the missing link. The Latino parents I’m working with are always enthusiastic. When they hear that their children will have a chance to visit a college campus, they just ask for the date. For people who think kindergarteners are too young for these types of experiences, I remind them that kindergarten is when students and families are first pushed out of the education process. Once you get to middle school, some people are already gone.

As Perez likes to joke, when she grows up she still plans to be a kindergarten teacher.

“That’s where we can begin creating connections, getting students and families planning and dreaming big. When parents and students envision together, it becomes a stronger possibility.”


Learn more about the doctor of education in leadership program.