Certain last names seem to dictate career interests.

Such is the case with Victoria Henry Cervantes.

Growing up in New Mexico, Cervantes “adored the written word,” keeping a journal and feasting on fiction and poetry. She spent much of her 20s working in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Honduras and Peru as a Fulbright Fellow, literacy teacher, and counselor to teen mothers. She learned to confront with equanimity young people’s lack of access to literacy education — especially “trauma-informed” literacy education that responds to students’ experiences with poverty, racism and other challenges.

It was the discovery that those same gaps are equally severe in the South Bronx that last year brought Cervantes to Teachers College as a master’s degree student in the Literacy Specialist program.

TC taught me foundational skills, such as phonics, but I’ve also learned that being literate is not just about reading, it’s about communicating via different media and navigating the world.

—Victoria Henry Cervantes 

“I’d tell friends about high school students who were just learning to read and write, and they’d say, ‘In the United States?’” she recalls. “But these are kids whose educations often have been interrupted by immigration or years spent in refugee camps. It’s a misunderstood population with unmet academic and emotional needs that can lead to life-long problems, because kids who can’t read or write often grow up to be exploited. And a lot of teachers are wildly unprepared to teach them, as I was.”

In TC’s program — home to the legendary Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, led by Lucy Calkins, Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature — Cervantes found the kind of formalized preparation she was looking for.

Graduates Gallery 2020

Meet some more of the amazing students who earned degrees from Teachers College this year.

“TC taught me foundational skills, such as phonics, but I’ve also learned that being literate is not just about reading, it’s about communicating via different media and navigating the world,” she says. “My awareness of multiple literacies has made me a much better educator because it made me recognize the different assets of each student.”

Cervantes calls her student assistantship with the Reading & Writing Project an “incredible opportunity” to polish competency in curriculum management and the integration of literature into classroom environments. As one of TC’s Arthur Zankel Urban Fellows, she also worked with emergent bilingual learners in high-need schools across the city.

As a result of those two experiences, Cervantes has become interested in staff development and a career “working and supporting whole groups of teachers.” While she’ll always keep a foot in the classroom, she wants to support teachers working in displacement camps with students in crisis.

“It is incomprehensible for me to think of a life without reading and writing, but that’s a reality for so many people,” she says. 

Changing that reality is a tall order — but you get the feeling that this Cervantes won’t be tilting at windmills.