From California to Kalamazoo: An Interview with Viridiana Carvajal
Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature Viridiana Carvajal, CIS After School Site Coordinator at El Sol Elementary. El Sol functions similarly to a magnet school, accepting students from throughout the Kalamazoo Public School district. Approximately half of El Sol’s students come from homes where Spanish is the primary spoken language and half from English-speaking homes.
Viri was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. When she was six, she and her family moved to Mexico, returning back to her California home when she was 12. Upon graduating from high school, she would make yet another journey, this time to Michigan for college.
Kalamazoo College and her experience with the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) would be a gateway to her future in many ways. And, as you’ll soon learn, her experience as a Kalamazoo College Civic Engagement Scholar opened the door to a career with CIS. She would also meet her life partner, Moises Hernandez. Moises is now Assistant Director at CCE. He also serves as a CIS volunteer and, as part of the Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council, received the 2019 Gulnar Husain Volunteer award. [More on that, here.]
A versatile and talented young woman, she has held various roles with CIS, supporting elementary, middle, and high school students across five different schools. Viri now lives in Kalamazoo with Moises, their four-year-old son Gael, her mother, and sisters.
Back in July, we met up with Viri at Arcadia Elementary School, where CIS Think Summer! was in full swing thanks to the support of federal dollars awarded through the Michigan Department of Education, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers. As the Director of CIS Think Summer! for around 90 elementary students hailing from nine different KPS schools, Viri was, well, busy.
Throughout the interview, Viri not only answered questions for Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids but periodically excused herself to field programmatic and kid questions from youth development coaches. She met briefly with a parent who stopped by, passed out a couple band-aids, rounded up an ice-pack, and helped a student who was struggling with staying focused in the classroom. Her leadership on display through her attitude and actions, Viri’s calm, positive, and open-minded approach washed over kids and grownups alike, setting just the right tone for the CIS Think Summer! program.
Alright, Viri: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.
From California to Kalamazoo! Kalamazoo College brought you to Kalamazoo but how did you come to learn about Kalamazoo College?
I went to Camino Nuevo High School in L.A. and because a former principal from one of the Camino Nuevo Schools had graduated from Kalamazoo College, the counselors were also familiar with K, as well as Hope College. I applied to visit the college to see if it would be a good fit for me. Turns out it was! I came from a very small high school and wanted a small campus.
I went to Kalamazoo College with the goal of becoming a math major. During my junior year, because of my experience with CIS through the Center for Civic Engagement, I changed my major to psychology.
Can you share more about your experience of connecting with CIS? You’ve worn several hats with the organization, haven’t you?
Yes! I was first introduced to CIS during my first year of college through my involvement with the Mary Jane Stryker Center for Civic Engagement. As a college freshman, that first year I worked on campus, involved with a tutoring program focused on math and science. It was in my sophomore year that I learned about the CIS and Kalamazoo College partnership at El Sol Elementary and Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts. As one of Kalamazoo College’s Civic Engagement Scholars [more on the Scholars and their involvement with CIS here] I tutored students at Maple Street, and then later, as part of my psychology class, did some volunteer work with CIS at Woodward School for Technology and Research.
During my last year at Kalamazoo College, [Senior Director of Community Engagement & Student Investment] Artrella Cohn brought me on board to work in the math tutoring program at Kalamazoo Central High School. That summer, I applied with CIS to be a YDC [Youth Development Coach] and went to work at El Sol in the fall of 2015. In January, I went back to LA but when I returned in 2016, I stepped back into my role as a YDC and worked with Kids in Tune during CIS Think Summer! I continued to support students as a YDC both during the school year and throughout CIS Think Summer!
In the fall of 2017, I transitioned to yet another role, serving as the interim CIS After School Coordinator at El Sol. That position became permanent for me. And in the summer of 2018, I was also the CIS Site Coordinator for the Kids in Tune portion of summer programming. I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work with Stacy Jackson who had, for the elementary level, been the Director of CIS Think Summer!
And now you have are here at Arcadia Elementary School serving as the Director of CIS Think Summer! Is there a school or CIS position that you haven’t been connected with in some way?
What do you love about working at El Sol as CIS After School Coordinator?
The kids! I love the kids. I’ve known many of these kids since I came on with CIS as a YDC. When I arrived, they were in kindergarten. Now those same kids will be going into fourth grade this fall. It’s amazing to see them grow and change. Also, it’s been wonderful coming to know and be with their families. Because the parents are very involved and I’ve been a consistent presence, the families know me. We’ve built relationships and they trust me.
Trust plays a huge part in your work with families, doesn’t it?
Yes, through the relationships we have built, and working together to support their children, that trust has grown. In some cases, families may come to me for other things, such as helping to translate things for them. Knowing that the kids want to return to CIS and parents want their kids to return and be involved with CIS tells me they want their kids with us and are trusting me to keep them safe.
What is one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a CIS after school coordinator?
Hearing kids want to return to CIS. They are excited for tomorrow and what it will bring. Our coaches work hard preparing for them and having a schedule for them to follow. Just like during the day, there are expectations we have for students in the after school program. While the students may grumble about it, at end of the day, they really appreciate the structure we provide.
Also, if I’ve been gone for a day, I love hearing them say, “We missed you!”
What do you find most challenging about your work?
Recognizing that some things are out of my control things and learning to be okay with that—it has been hard. I’m a person that always wants to have answers and help however I can. So I am out of my comfort zone when I can’t do something about a given situation. It’s hard to be okay with that. So while I’ve had that challenge in my role at El Sol, I find I am having similar feelings in a different setting as I adjust to our summer program. We have different kids are coming from different schools, all with different experiences, and I don’t have control over that.
What are you currently reading?
George by Alex Gino. It was recommended by one of my coaches [also referred to as youth development coaches] and I just started it. It’s about a transgender student who is in fourth grade.
What is your favorite word right now?
Grateful. I feel grateful and am grateful. I’m serving in this summer position as director and that is new for me. It’s not easy and I am grateful to have the support I do in this position, both in my professional and in my personal life.
Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?
My mom, Elena. She’s been a single mom raising three girls. She worked so hard and sacrificed so much for us. She taught me a lot. She always has a lesson to teach me, even now. If I have a hard day at work she calms me and helps me look at things differently. I look up to her, my role model.
Thank you, Viri, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000 Kids.
Do you or someone you know speak Spanish? Consider becoming a volunteer with CIS today. Our students at El Sol and at other CIS sites throughout Kalamazoo Public Schools can use your support. Start the process by going here today!
Tags: 21st CCLC Community Learning Centers, Arcadia Elementary School, CIS Think Summer, El Sol Elementary School, Kalamazoo College, Kalamazoo College Civic Engagement Scholars, Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement, Michigan Department of Education, Moises Hernandez, Viridiana Carvajal, VLAC, Volunteer Leadership Advisory Council