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Graduate Spotlight: Pionero scholar returns to elementary school to teach

From Sesame Street to the Ascension Project, first-generation graduate Karen De Leon adds to the ranks of teachers of color.

From Staff Reports | 

Karen in a solo picture

 The daughter of immigrants from Guatemala, Karen De Leon (’23) learned to speak English by watching Sesame Street. As she grew up in Nashville, she often relied on her school teachers to learn how to be successful. While studying at Lipscomb, she leaned on her mentor in the Pionero Program, a scholarship and outreach initiative.

With each person who poured into her, throughout her life, she learned. Now, as an upcoming graduate on Dec. 16, she is ready to pour everything she learned back out to other students who could become first-generation college students. 

De Leon has already secured a job, beginning Jan. 4, as a third-grade teacher at the elementary school where she studied as a child: Norman Binkley Elementary in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

“Norman is a special place for me because that is where a little seed of love for learning and community was planted in me,” said De Leon. “Going back to teach there means I can give back to the community that set the foundation for me to be successful in my academic career. I want to plant that little seed that was planted in me in my students, who will also be first-generation college students.

“I want [my students] to know that ‘Sí puedes (Yes, you can)!” is not just a phrase every Hispanic parent says, but a living testimony that it can be done,” she said.

De Leon’s mother instilled in her a passion for education that made her want to be a teacher. “My mom left her home country and family to come to America. She could have returned home to be surrounded by her loved ones instead of living alone in America with no one to help her raise me. She chose to stay in America because she thought of one thing: my education,” she said.

Karen in a classroom

Because members of her family had worked at Lipscomb, she knew about the College of Education. Upon graduation from Glencliff High School in Antioch, Tennessee, she decided that “Lipscomb can prepare me to be the best teacher I can be.” She also discovered the Pionero Scholars Program, a scholarship and outreach initiative for Nashville students who want to become teachers, which provided financial aid and a supportive mentor through Program Director Laura Delgado. 

“[Delgado] has been my cheerleader and who I consider my ‘college mom’ throughout this journey,” said De Leon. “I also feel so lucky to have had the professors in the College of Education always rooting for me through this journey and inspiring me through their work and care for my classmates and me.”

“The Pionero Program is not just a scholarship. It’s a support system for all of us, because it is hard being a teacher of color,” remarks De Leon. “We’re learning how to navigate all the challenges that come with it, but it also gives us the opportunity to meet other communities like the Ascension Project.” 

The Ascension Project is a program created by the Tennessee Educators of Color Alliance (TECA) and Teach Plus. The program equipped De Leon to enter the classroom prepared for the challenges of being a teacher of color, thus helping them succeed professionally in their careers. The program focuses on racial identity development, education policy, advocacy strategies, résumé development and networking for career advancement.

She was also a member of the President's Student Advisory Council (PSAC) during her college career.

De Leon says Lipscomb has meant “home” to her in the last few years, as the College of Education professors, women faculty and Bible faculty have all nurtured me and equipped me with what I need to go out into the world and make a positive impact through love and knowledge.”

“What it means to me to graduate from college is that I have made my mom’s sacrifice worth it,” said De Leon, “and I am another woman in the Latino/Hispanic community who has broken the glass ceiling.”