From school salad lady to U.S. Senate candidate and now Vice President of the National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen has always found a way to create her own destiny.
As a college student, she worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, loans, and money she made as a starving folk singer. She eventually earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in instructional technology from the university.
And that was just the beginning. After teaching for only nine years, she was named Utah Teacher of the Year in 1989.
"It's all about your attitude," said Ms. Eskelsen, who is one of HispanicBusiness Magazine's 2009 Woman of the Year finalists. "If you have the passion to be heard, sooner or later people are going to listen to what you have to say. You absolutely have to believe in yourself. No matter how humble your background."
Eskelsen was elected in July 2008 to the National Education Association and will serve a three-year term. The NEA has 3.2 million members and is the largest professional employee organization in the nation.
An Ability To Connect With Children
Like so many women in the workplace, Ms. Eskelsen has overcome significant barriers. The 53-year-old, however, is the type who thrives on adversity.
Raised to live a modest life, Ms. Eskelsen married right out of high school to a man enrolled in the U.S. Army. She took a job as a cafeteria worker because she wanted to be around children.
Teachers, however, began to take notice of her ability to connect with kids and she quickly became a kindergarten aide. From there, Ms. Eskelsen's movement up the ladder escalated.
A kindergarten teacher told Ms. Eskelsen that she had a gift and that she should go to college to pursue teaching. She listened.
"I'm smart, I have heart, and all I needed was a little education and a little encouragement," Ms. Eskelsen said.
Eskelsen's Panamanian mother spoke Spanish in the home, but the teacher didn't learn Spanish until later in life. She's still learning. Every day Eskelsen uses those around her as Spanish teachers, from the lawyer down the hall, to the cleaners, to the lady who waters her plants.
A Teacher Learns From Others
She tries to learn something from each person she interacts with. One of the biggest lessons came when she taught homeless children grades K-6, all in a single classroom.
"We would have anywhere from 10 to 12 students on any given day," explained Ms. Eskelsen. "You had the most amazing mix of students: You'd have kids with blue eyes and blond hair ... Navajo children, Africans – literally from Ghana – whose dads were running methamphetamine labs in the kitchen, and their common ground was poverty. But they were funny, they were not depressed, they understood the situation."
From that experience, Ms. Eskelsen admitted, she became very aware of how important teachers can be when parents lack the capacity to hold their own. "The only safe place [the homeless students] had was in my classroom."
The media coverage Ms. Eskelsen received during her recognition as Teacher of the Year prompted supporters to encourage her to run for her first public office position in the Utah Education Association.
"I asked what positions were open, and they said, 'a lot,'" recalled Ms. Eskelsen. "I said, 'OK, let's go for the presidency.'" Ms. Eskelsen's popularity as a phenomenal teacher overshadowed her lack of experience in the political arena, and in 1990 she was elected president of the Utah Education Association.
Ms. Eskelsen continued that drive into 1998 when she decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. Although she lost, Ms. Eskelsen managed to take 45 percent of the vote against her Republican incumbent.
"The legacy that I left in that election is that the Hispanic community is not ignored even in a state like Utah," said Ms. Eskelsen. "I think for the first time politicians said, 'Wow, it makes sense to [be] more inclusive in those elections.'"
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