Celebrating Latino Leaders: Grace Guidet
"Seeing the different abilities among my students motivates me to help them obtain their goals. I encourage them to set high standards for themselves and to not give up. I want them to challenge themselves and learn that they can overcome obstacles."
Talented and Gifted Teacher, Hamden Public Schools
Hometown: New Haven, Connecticut
Grace Guidet’s family came to the United States from Colombia, South America in 1966 in search of the “American Dream” like many others. Her grandmother joined the family two years later. Both her mother and father held several jobs to make ends meet, while her grandmother tended to the household.
“My parents worked multiple jobs for as long as I can remember,” Grace says. “They willingly struggled with [the] language barrier, isolation and financial worry in order to provide us with the opportunities this country could offer.”
Building the Foundation
Grace’s parents’ education was limited; however, her father was a successful freelance photographer in Colombia.
“When he arrived in this country, his lack of English limited his job options to a single one -- dishwasher. Housekeeping and assembly line work would eventually be their main way of sustaining the seven person household for all of my childhood.”
Although Grace’s parents had to forgo a proper education growing up, they wanted to make sure their children did not. They put all four of their children through private school, which came with a hefty price tag.
“This enormous cost placed a tremendous financial burden on my parents, one I was painfully aware of as a child,” Grace says. “However, my parents believed in education and its importance. They worked diligently and sacrificed endlessly without a single complaint.”
Grace and her siblings struggled to relate to their peers in elementary school, which sometimes left them feeling isolated.
“My sisters and I endured bullying for years and never quite fit in,” Grace says. “I remember serving as the translator for my parents often and regularly feeling out of place as the kids in school spoke of American customs that I had never taken part in. I was ashamed of our culture because it made us different. I wanted so desperately to fit in.”
A Turning Point
Things started to look up for Grace in high school when she met a more diverse group of her peers, which included 2nd generation immigrants like herself. This exposure started a ripple effect of self-acceptance and self-confidence, which unbeknownst to her would later shape her career.
Grace graduated from Southern Connecticut State University with a degree in accounting. After working in the banking industry for a few years, she found herself wanting to make a deeper impact on people’s lives, more specifically in the lives of children that face the same situation she once did.
After this self-revelation, Grace returned to school, receiving a Masters in Elementary Education from Cambridge College. After receiving her Masters, she began teaching in Hamden Public Schools where she remained for 10 years teaching 4th and 5th graders from diverse backgrounds.
“I especially loved the cultural diversity and felt proud that I was able to speak to parents in their native language,” Grace says. “I remember at parent conferences seeing their faces light up when they found out I spoke Spanish. It was as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders. It was more than just having someone speak the same language; it was about having someone understand their experiences in this country. They weren’t alone.”
Grace’s deep connection with her students and their families gained her recognition. In 2008, she received the Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award, a prestigious teaching award honoring top educators around the country, for her contributions to education.
“I remember that at that moment I felt more pride for my parents than anything else,” Grace says. “They were able to see the impact of their efforts and sacrifice in this country. They came with limited education and nothing else and now their children were making impacts on the lives of others. It was an amazing feeling.”
Now, Grace facilitates the Talented and Gifted Program in Hamden and has done so for the last nine years. She works with elementary students across the district to develop their academic gifts and shows them how to unlock their potential.
“Seeing the different abilities among my students motivates me to help them obtain their goals,” Grace says. “I encourage them to set high standards for themselves and to not give up. I want them to challenge themselves and learn that they can overcome obstacles. The best days are the ones in which I see something click and their eyes light up with excitement and pride.”
Breaking the Barriers of Isolation
The challenges Grace faced as a child are the same ones her bilingual students and their families face, only they have her to help them. Grace knows them as barriers of isolation and says the Latino community as a group can break them by creating a bridge.
“I feel many families lack a connection to this country,” Grace says. “The current environment is fueling this emotion even more. As an American community, we need be cognizant of other cultures and develop empathy for our newest members. Being an American does not mean you have to deny or let go of your culture’s traditions. It is possible to be part of both. We can create a new connection while maintaining old ones. As successful Latinos, we need to help create and maintain a bridge to develop these connections with our immigrant community.”
Although Grace sees some challenges for Latinos, she also sees opportunities.
“More and more Latinos are rising up as leaders and helping to bridge that isolation gap,” Grace says with excitement. “The Progreso Latino Fund is helping lay the foundation. We all need to do our part and lead by example. Whether it is volunteering at a local organization, teaching our children empathy or saying hello to someone in their native language, we all can make an impact.”
Grace has vowed to play her part by continuing to share the lessons she has learned from her family’s story, helping inspire immigrants facing the same plight. Despite her family’s hardships along the way, her parents were able to put her and her three siblings through college and go on to lead successful lives.
“My family arrived in this country 52 years ago with nothing,” Grace says. “Through hard work, perseverance and ‘ganas’ (desire), they achieved the American Dream they sought. It was a challenging road and I want to help as many people as I can learn these lessons and achieve their goals. We are not alone.”