Meet the future Spartan educator learning to be a force for creating change
By Lauren Knapp
Julia Alvarez has a magnetic personality.
She’s warm, energetic and hilarious, and makes you feel as if you’ve already known her for a long time. She’s also thoughtful, educated and refreshingly candid about the world around her: the world she is going to change.
Because if there is one thing you will feel after talking to Alvarez and those who know her, it’s that she really is going to be a driver of difference—and she’s only just getting started.
HOW TO PLANT A TREE
People are a lot like trees, Alvarez says.
A person who is finding their way in the world—say, a young student—might be a sapling just planted in the ground.
“As an educator, I see the tree that students can become,” Alvarez explained. “In the Teacher Preparation Program, we talk a lot about adapting to different learning styles and working with kids to make them comfortable with failing, or not always doing things right the first time. But, at some point, students need to learn to grow themselves. And yet, applying that to yourself is really hard. It’s easy to see the potential—the full-grown tree—in others, but I am working on seeing it in myself.”
In fall 2018, then a secondary education major sitting in ENG 302 at Michigan State University, Alvarez, in her own words, was a very young tree.
She was talking with fellow student Olivia Gundrum about frustrations and limitations within the Teacher Preparation Program at MSU.
“We had concerns,” Alvarez said. This included questions about how the program did—or did not—acknowledge topics about race, equity and more.
“I was struggling in how the program prepared or hadn’t prepared me as a white woman to teach students of color,” Gundrum said. “I felt like I needed to seek things out versus having them be already in my program. It was really frustrating.”
That’s where Lamar Johnson, assistant professor of language and literacy at MSU, stepped in.
Though she didn’t know it then, this was the moment when Alvarez started to take root.
Johnson overheard Alvarez and Gundrum talking about their experiences, and asked what they were going to do about it.
“We didn’t know we could do anything!” Alvarez, who later became an elementary education major, continued. “Then, we started to think: What could we actually do? If we have this power, why aren’t we using it?”
REDESIGN & RECOGNITION
In early 2018, faculty in the Department of Teacher Education established a list of Core Principles dedicating themselves, as scholars and as a department, to practices of equity and social justice, participating in public discourse and amplifying voices of others, among other tenants. Those principles were the guiding light as faculty thought next about how to improve the renowned Teacher Preparation Program (TPP).
So when Alvarez and Gundrum set up a meeting that fall with Corey Drake, director of TPP, it came at the perfect time.
“I had a fabulous discussion with them; I knew this was a message our faculty needed to hear,” Drake remembered.
Then, the Michigan Department of Education announced statewide changes to teacher education standards in January 2019, and the momentum really shifted.
Drake coordinated a TPP redesign retreat with faculty from MSU and mentor teachers across the state to discuss what changes they needed and wanted to make to the program.
Drake also invited two students to share their insights and hopes: Alvarez and Gundrum.
“They reiterated messages about the need for more conversations and action around race, whiteness, justice and equity throughout the program,” Drake said. “It was what we needed to hear; we really took what they said to heart.”
What had started as a seed of an idea in Johnson’s classroom was beginning to grow.
Ideas and suggestions Alvarez and Gundrum presented have since been incorporated into the redesign of the elementary and special education program,* and will debut at MSU in fall 2020.
Among the concerns, they shared how they felt discussions regarding race, equity and other topics happened early in the program, and then were rarely (if ever) connected in later courses.
Because of their feedback, that’s now changed: What was once a single semester on these topics is now a required, yearlong course. Also new to the program: Four social justice seminars that will run in conjunction with methods courses.
“There was momentum for this change,” Drake acknowledged, “But having Alvarez and Gundrum at the retreat was a huge moment. So many people said it changed their view about how we approached the redesign.”
“MY DAUGHTER IS GOING TO BE A TEACHER!”
Alvarez grew up in California with an incredibly tight-knit family. Her parents, Martha and Eddie, are her “biggest fans,” and they were supportive when Alvarez announced she wanted to be the first in the family to leave the state to go to college.
MSU, from the beginning, was a favorite.
“Coming here sealed the deal. I came to campus and it felt right. Something about this place felt like it was the place I needed to be.”
Alvarez started as a journalism major—and Eddie immediately started telling everyone “my daughter is going to MSU!”—but the minute she received her schedule, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There wasn’t a connection with any of the courses.
What major did she want instead?
“Education just popped out of my mouth,” she laughed.
Throughout her life, everyone had told Alvarez she would make a great teacher. Yet, Martha, who had long worked in various positions in the school system, often talked about the stress teachers felt, and that made Alvarez nervous to tell her parents she had changed her mind. She wanted to be a teacher.
Martha was admittedly a bit skeptical at first, but now can’t help and comment on the serendipity of it all.
“She will say things like: ‘How ridiculous is it that you went to MSU, and didn’t want to go into teaching, but now decided that it is your path—and it ends up being the #1 school [in elementary and secondary education]!** It doesn’t just happen,’” Alvarez said.
Eddie, meanwhile, still tells people his daughter is a Spartan, but has added an exclamation: “My daughter is going to be a teacher!”
Alvarez’s family has a group chat. In late 2018, it was going crazy.
Eddie and Martha had always pushed their children—Christina, Julia and Eddie, Jr.—to pursue college, but reminded them that getting to college took work and perseverance, and then even more once admitted.
“My parents have sacrificed so much for me to be here. I have worked so hard to be here,” Alvarez said. “It’s almost disrespectful to do nothing when there is so much that can be done.”
And she has done just about everything. Among other activities, she has studied abroad; served as a resident assistant and president of her sorority and as an intercultural aide with Gundrum (see below); participated in MSU’s Day of Service and currently works as a career peer advisor for the College of Education. And, of course, redefined the teacher prep program.
That day in 2018, the one with the exploding group chat, she added another item to the list of accolades: She was named to the 2019 MSU Homecoming Court.
“It’s one of those experiences you’ll never forget,” she says, “If I think about myself in my freshman year, I never would have expected this. To go from sitting in the bleachers at games to being the one on the field was insane. Ridiculous. Unreal.”
Though Alvarez is a senior and looking toward her yearlong teaching internship (and beyond, wanting to teach in California, then maybe abroad for a while and then wherever the world takes her), she still is making changes at MSU.
Take her job as a career peer in the college, where she meets with students to help them get involved on campus, explore career paths or review documents such as cover letters. She also works with student groups to provide support and guidance.
“She has been a great touchpoint for so many,” said Pepa Casselman, the college’s career consultant and Alvarez’s supervisor. “She has an amazing sensitivity and approach to her work.”
Alvarez has worked with Casselman for three years. Alvarez may have voiced struggles with seeing her own potential, but Casselman is astounded by her growth.
“She has this drive that is never-ending. Her experiences and determination move her. It defines her,” she explained. “It speaks to what an incredible mover and changer she is going to be in the future. She has learned that when you speak out, when you communicate and make things known, it starts making change. This is just a glimpse of what she’s capable of.”Pepa Casselman
Naturally, the change is continuing. Assistant Professor Alyssa Dunn is leading a group of students (including Alvarez and Gundrum) on qualitative research to gather student perspectives in the college on racial justice, equity and more.
“We want to center student voices, to listen to them,” Gundrum said. (Read more about Gundrum, and her journey at MSU, below.)
Their research—examining thoughts, feelings and experiences—will continue through fall 2020, with hopes to share their findings at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting in April 2021.
When asked to describe Alvarez in a word, Kristy Dumont will say things like “phenomenal. Brilliant. Passionate.”
Dumont, director of undergraduate student affairs in the college, heard Alvarez and Gundrum speak at the TPP redesign retreat, and then asked them to share their story with academic advisors in the college.
“It changed the way we think around the office, the way we approach students,” said Dumont, who looks forward to working with Gundrum, a junior, more in the future. “We’re now asking things like: How can we make the space more welcoming for everyone? Encourage growth and diversity? Be as inclusive as possible?”
The Student Affairs Office is developing an action plan based on the insight, including being more purposeful about sharing more multicultural resources, information about diverse student organizations and more.
Inclusion, growth and diversity were key in Associate Professor Terry Flennaugh’s mind when he became the leader of Future Teachers of Color, an informal group for people to gather, discuss experiences and check in with one another.
It is “one of the best spaces in the college,” according to Alvarez, who, of course, has been a positive impact there, too.
“One of the most important and best resources in our program are other students of color. Julia has been really perceptive when talking to peers and colleagues, and is a very giving person,” explained Flennaugh, coordinator of urban education initiatives.
Johnson, one of Alvarez’s former professors, attends the group’s sessions, too, and has continued to connect with her there. Based on what Johnson has seen, he knows she has taken the lessons learned in her courses, including his, and put theory into action.
“I always tell my students: ‘You need to be your own advocate.’ Some spaces don’t love you. They won’t love you. Many revolutions have been led by the youth, like people like Julia and Olivia. Students have power, and need to learn how to use it for the greater good. We have to make change in these spaces, or else it won’t change.”
Presenting to the TPP faculty was a shining example of that, Johnson said: “It took a lot of courage. A lot of strength. And, it came from a space of radical love. From a space of loving students they don’t even know.”
COMPASSION, COMMUNITY & CHANGE
Change has been a recurring theme during Alvarez’s time at MSU, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of her favorite parts about the university. When she thinks about why she loves MSU, it’s easily the community and camaraderie.
“Anytime something bad happens, or anytime something isn’t right, the community comes forth to say ‘that’s not okay. We deserve better.’ That, to me, is what it means to be a Spartan: Coming together to make change for a bigger purpose.”
It makes sense, then, why Alvarez has dreams of becoming a teacher. Why she knows, deep down, this is what she is meant to do—why she, unexpectedly and gloriously, said the word “education” when asked what she wanted her major to be.
It’s because her entire being is rooted in a drive for compassion and, ultimately, change.
It’s because she’s been in spaces where things haven’t been good, and where she’s had to fight for what she believed in—what was right—to make it better for everyone following after her.
It’s because, when looking at a young student, she doesn’t just see the seed of a learner, but the tree they will grow to be and change the landscape of everything around them.
“Seeing the growth my students can have gives me hope for the future,” she explained. “If these kids can learn empathy, discover themselves and help one another, we can create a sense of community that will change the world.”
And that, to her, is what it is really all about: “There are things I can never take back or change. I don’t ever want my students to feel that. It’s not ‘just the way it is.’ They, and you, have the right to make your experience, your life, how you want it to be. You can do whatever you want do to.”
*At time of writing, the Michigan Department of Education was still developing state standards for secondary education. When fully developed, MSU will redesign the secondary program, with anticipated launch in fall 2022.
**In March 2020, the MSU College of Education was ranked #1 in elementary education for the 26th straight year by U.S. News & World Report in their annual graduate program rankings.
Following the writing of this story, Julia Alvarez was chosen to be one of the student commencement speakers for the Class of 2020. In addition, Kinesiology senior Alton Kirksey was also selected. Learn more about his story and plans to shape the future.
MEET OLIVIA GUNDRUM
“This isn’t about us,” Gundrum said when discussing all she and Alvarez have accomplished together. “It’s about the students Teacher Preparation Program graduates are going to teach one day.”
Based on conversations she’s had with fellow students, Gundrum believes: “There are people graduating from TPP who don’t know things they should know. There aren’t enough opportunities currently within the college to engage with racial justice and equity. TE students want to grow and have those conversations. We, as future teachers, have a huge opportunity to shape and shift society in cool and amazing ways. That should be cultivated to the best of our ability. We have the capacity here at MSU to do that.”
Gundrum has always wanted to be a teacher. A first-generation student, she also knew MSU was the place she needed to go to fulfill that goal.
One of her most transformative experiences, however, happened outside of the college: the Multi-Racial Unity Living Experience (MRULE), a living-learning opportunity centered on community building and raising consciousness. As an intercultural aide in the program, Gundrum works in the East Neighborhood of campus and coordinates roundtable discussions on what’s happening in the world, from topics such as the opioid crisis, Hong Kong protests and beyond.
“You learn so much about yourself,” Gundrum said about the once-per-week sessions. “Being an ICA has prepared me so much to become a teacher. It has impacted my identity, how I see others, how I see the world.”
Gundrum also works in MSU’s Prevention, Outreach and Education Department, primarily assisting with required workshops for first-year students on sexual assault and relationship violence.
“What is profound to me through all of my experiences at MSU is: We know MSU isn’t a perfect institution, and also, there are people who are committed to improving campus. What I find pride in and who I identify with is the students, the people dedicated to making MSU the best it can be. It’s special to be a part of this.”