Vancouver resident Rosalba Pitkin learned the value of hard work, education and community service from her grandmother’s example and wise words spoken in the language of the Aztecs.
“My grandmother woke up early in the morning and went to work in her field,” Pitkin recalled. “I woke up. She was already in the field, and she was talking with her plants. She spoke Nahuatl most of the time.”
The grandmother, Crescencia Gonzalez, raised Pitkin in Mexico after Pitkin’s mother died when Pitkin was 7. Gonzalez left behind her beloved plants on the farm in Toluca, Mexico so that Pitkin and her two brothers could continue their education in Mexico City.
“For my grandmother, it was very important that her kids went to school,” Pitkin said. “She sacrificed many things in order that we continued school.”
That sacrifice paid off. Pitkin is now outreach coordinator at Clark College’s Office of Diversity and Equity and a member of the State Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
At Clark College, she helps teach foreign-born students about the U.S. school system, counsels them on their educational options and connects them with services such as English as a Second Language instruction.
Pitkin said she knows how lost the students feel as they try to learn another language, navigate a new school system and adapt to different cultural practices, such as calling instructors by their first names. She went through the same experience when she moved to the United States and enrolled in New Mexico State University.
“For me, it was a big shock because the system was so different,” Pitkin said. She still feels nervous about calling instructors by their first names, because in Mexico, that would show disrespect, she said.
That common experience provides an “immediate connection” between Pitkin and her students.
“Sometimes they don’t say anything,” she said. “I know what they want to say from their body language.
Pitkin moved to the United States because of her husband and became a citizen herself. The couple met in Mexico, where he was studying Spanish.
After the couple married, they moved to New Mexico. Pitkin started with English as a Second Language classes at New Mexico State University and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in international business.
“I want (my students) to feel that if they work they can do it,” Pitkin said. “They need to put the effort forth, but they can do it. They can learn English and find a job.”
That’s another lesson Pitkin’s grandmother demonstrated. One of Pitkin’s cherished memories is of her grandmother’s punishing a fruit tree for being lazy and not producing fruit.
Gonzalez decorated the fruit tree with red bows in an attempt to “embarrass it” for being lazy, Pitkin said. The next year, the tree was loaded with fruit, Pitkin said, still amazed.
While Pitkin was seeking out resources for her students, she became connected with the State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. In 2007, Gov. Christine Gregoire appointed Pitkin to represent Clark County on the commission. Since Pitkin joined the commission, she has helped in an effort to streamline Mexican Consulate services for Mexicans in Southwest Washington. Southwest Washington residents needing services from the Mexican Consulate used to have to go to Seattle. Based on feedback from the commission, the consulate recently changed boundaries so that Southwest Washington is now included in the district of the Mexican Consulate in Portland.
The commission also has been working with the consulate to try to establish scholarships for Mexican students, Pitkin said.
Pitkin said the commission has allowed her to make a positive impact on the community and to learn about the state political system.
Her grandmother, who died in 2006, would no doubt be proud.
“My grandmother, always she said, ‘It’s important to plant good seeds wherever you go,'” Pitkin recounted. “‘Just take care of that, and it’s going to grow.'”