When Lee College alumna and Horace Mann Junior High School principal Erica Navejar encounters students whose families have recently emigrated from Mexico, their struggle to learn a new language and assimilate into American culture strikes a deeply familiar chord.
Just 5 years old when her parents managed to gather the money and secure the approvals they needed to move to Texas in pursuit of a better life, Navejar entered kindergarten at San Jacinto Elementary in Baytown and quickly felt the frustration of trying to master English and adapt to a new way of life.
“They come to a different world and I say, ‘I know you don’t get it. I know how you feel. I know that you’re lost,” Navejar told a group of Latino students at a recent holiday luncheon for the Lee College Puente Project program. “But your mom is here, and it’s her dream to have you here and to move forward. So, you’re going to have to do that.’”
It’s not always an easy message to deliver to her young pupils, but Navejar speaks from personal experience — much of which is chronicled in her autobiography, “El Sueño: The Dream.” She donated signed copies of the book to a pair of Puente students who attended the event.
As the children of Mexican immigrants and the first in their families to attend college, many students in the Puente Project can identify with Navejar’s journey. Lee is only the fourth community college district in Texas to host the award-winning program, which aims to increase the number of underserved students who transfer to 4-year colleges and universities, earn degrees and return to their communities as leaders and role models for future generations.
“In Spanish, ’puente’ means bridge, and that’s what we’re trying to do: make that bridge over from community college to a 4-year institution for these students,” said Victoria Marron, project coordinator and director of the college’s $5 million Hispanic-Serving Institutions Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (HSI STEM) grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
Motivated by the knowledge that her parents had worked tirelessly and sacrificed greatly in the hope that their children would be and do better than they ever had, Navejar rose from her humble beginnings in a one-bedroom house on blocks in Old Baytown.
She pushed through those difficult days of school and eventually learned English well enough to become her parent’s personal translator. After marrying and starting a family at a young age, she left behind her job as a waitress to earn an associate’s degree from Lee College; continued her education to obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees; and later embarked on her career as an educator.
Sharing a quote from well-known Hispanic teacher Jaime Escalante, Navejar urged the Puente students to abandon their excuses and any thoughts of securing a high-paying job without first having an education. Success comes from hard work and “ganas” — the unwavering desire to realize their dreams and the dreams of the loved ones who brought them to America, she said.
“I think that’s what the Puente program is all about,” Navejar said. “If you have the desire, the ganas, you’re going to make it. You might run into some roadblocks, but don’t give up. You know your possibilities, you know what you can do and you know what you can endure. I’m here to tell you: you’re going to make it.”