I emigrated from Colombia at 21 years of age. I came to the United States knowing very little English and with the dream of continuing my educational career in this country. Leaving my family, my dreams and a job in Colombia to start from zero in this new country was one of my life's most challenging moments.
Starting a new life in the United States
For my first three years living in the United States, I lived in an apartment with just a couch and a mattress. I was committed to learning English and getting my Texas Teaching Certification to continue doing what I loved the most: being a teacher. When I lived in Dallas, I would ride multiple buses to volunteer in schools so that I could speed up the process of learning English and gain knowledge of the educational system in this country.
Starting a new life here was not easy, but it taught me to be resilient, fight for my dreams and to find my worth in who I am rather than what I had.
Starting a new life here was not easy, but it taught me to be resilient, fight for my dreams and to find my worth in who I am rather than what I had. Learning English as a second language was difficult as an adult. I was highly aware of my accent, which kept me from pursuing post-graduate studies earlier on in my life. I remember one occasion when a co-worker laughed publicly about a word I mispronounced during professional development and the embarrassment I felt.
Navigating the Latina identity
Feeling pride in my identity as a Latina in United Stated has taken me time as I’ve had to recover from feeling marginalized for many years. I also must say that being a Latina born and raised in another country, I struggled significantly with understanding the challenges and identity of other Latinos born in the United States. Plus, I have found it difficult to choose my ethnicity as Hispanic since in Colombia I never had this designation.
Time has taught me that leading from my identity empowers others to do the same, especially the families and students I lead at YES Prep Southeast Elementary.
Time has taught me that my identity matters. Time has taught me that checking a box for my ethnicity and race does not describe who I am. Time has taught me that it is diversity that makes us better and strengthens our community. Time has taught me that leading from my identity empowers others to do the same, especially the families and students I lead at YES Prep Southeast Elementary.
I know that my journey and struggles help me better connect with my school’s families and students who are also immigrants. There is something special about the resilience I have built and the strength it took to not give up on my dream of being an educator in this country.
Serving as principal from my identity
I never dreamed of being a principal in this country. I felt like I did not deserve it because I did not see myself in other principals. I had a heavy accent, and I did not go to elementary or high school in the United States, I felt different and had doubts of how I will lead in a country in which I was an immigrant. I however, had a mentor that believed in me and told me to apply for this role at YES Prep. I am so glad I did!
Being bilingual is a superpower that I want to promote for our YES Prep Sparks.
As an organization that serves a significant part of our students who identify as Latinos or Latinas, leading from my identity has helped me connect with families and students who may have or are going through the same struggles that I went through as an immigrant. As a bilingual individual, I also understand the power of language and its intersection with culture. Being bilingual is a superpower that I want to promote for our YES Prep Sparks. I am a fierce advocate of bilingualism and biliteracy and equity and access for all students and families to an excellent education.
As the principal of Southeast Elementary, my mission is to ensure our school provides high-quality educational opportunities for our Sparks to grow academically, linguistically, and socio-emotionally so they can live choice-filled lives.
My advice to our families is to embrace their uniqueness and the diversity of our community. Our identities make us an essential part of the fabric of YES Prep. We draw strength from the diversity of languages, backgrounds, lifestyles and talents we each bring. As this year’s Southeast Elementary theme states, we are in "many paths, to one journey to greatness."
About the author
Diana Rios is the founding principal of YES Prep Southeast Elementary. Prior to YES Prep, Rios worked as a classroom teacher for more than ten years in Colombia, Guatemala and the United States. She comes with experience as a grade level chair and teacher in the general and bilingual education classrooms at the elementary level. She has also taught adults and children with exceptionalities. Rios has a bachelor’s in Education from the University of Antioquia in Colombia and a master's in Educational Administration from Texas A&M University.