Meet Lily Eskelsen García, the President of the National Education Association

Lily Eskelsen Garcia National Education Association
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Lily Eskelsen García may be the highest-ranking Latina in labor, but she knows that true power comes in the classroom — where teachers mold the minds of our future. 

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Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, used to teach the fourth, fifth and sixth grades. After she won the honor of Utah Teacher of the Year, however, she decided to try her hand at the political side of teaching. She became president of the Utah Education Association in 1990. Eighteen years later, she became the VP of the NEA, and, in 2014, she became president of the three-million-member employee organization.

We spoke to Eskelsen García about her career beginnings in a school cafeteria, about working with the President of the United States and more. Read it below: 

You started your career actually in a school cafeteria — that's wild!

I was eighteen, and I married my late husband right after high school. We were married for thirty-five years, but he passed away five years ago. To my parents, that seemed perfectly reasonable: you graduate from high school, you get married, kids start coming.

I graduated from high school, and my husband was in the army and making a whopping $400 a month. I had to have a job. I liked working with kids like babysitting, so I went to a preschool with a Head Start program for low-income kids. They had an opening in the kitchen. Saying I was "the lunch lady" in my résumé is résumé-padding — I was the salad girl!

I showed I could get along well with the kids, and I got the job as a teacher’s aid. The kindergarten teacher who I was working with told me to go to college to be a teacher. And as soon as she planted that seed, I knew I had to do it.

Before that, did you consider going to college at all?

I hadn't thought about it! No one before that — not my parents, not my teachers — ever told me to consider college. 

How did you pay for college?

I filled out a whole lot of forms, I took out a student loan and I did get a couple of scholarships and pell grants. It took me four years to graduate, and I later on went back to get my masters degree in instructional technology.

The thing that strikes me about your story is you had a job, you had scholarships, and it still took you 10 years to pay off your loan.

My loan was fifty dollars a month. What’s your loan? 

MIne is a lot more than $50. [Laughs]

I have talked to college students who pay $700 to $800 a month. It costs them more to pay their loans than to pay their rent. Sometimes, they have separate part-time jobs on weekends just to make that payment.

I talked to one young man, a Latino from California. He told me that he graduated from high school and got a good job at a union grocery store that paid well. They made him the manager of this grocery store at the age of 25. When his daughter was born, he decided he wanted to be a role model to her. He wanted to be the first in his family to go to college. So, he quit his job and he took out a student loan. He told me that his daughter is now four years old. He has over  $90,000 of student debt, and he's afraid he won't get a job teaching. He told me, "I'm afraid it was a bad financial decision for me to choose to go to college."

I want the next President of the United States, I want governors, I want state legislators, I want all the politicians out there to see how its hurting everything this country stands for.

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