This is an ongoing series devoted to the stories of Montgomery County’s immigrant population.
In 2005, Claudia Paiva, then 15 years old, boarded a plane with her family from Peru to the United States, attracted by the prospect of university scholarships for Paiva and her older brother.
“It’s very expensive for a middle-class family to send a kid to college in Peru, and there aren’t as many scholarship opportunities as there are here,” Paiva said.
Paiva and her family came to the U.S. on a six-month tourist visa and remained in the country without papers after it expired, living as undocumented immigrants for several years.
“Peru is a very traditional, very religious country,” Paiva said. “When we got here, my parents became very protective and repressive, and I resented them for that for a long time.”
Paiva learned English in ESOL (English as a Second Language) classes at John F. Kennedy High School. She also credited her job as a waitress with improving her English conversational skills and with making her more socially confident.
After graduating from Montgomery College with an associate degree in psychology, Paiva took a job in a law firm to get office experience but found it not to her taste and quit after six months.
“I went back to see my ESOL teacher, Mr. Wilson, and told him I was frustrated about not being able to find a better job even with my degree,” Paiva said. “He said ‘Why don’t you try teaching?’ I didn’t think I would ever be a teacher, but he said, ‘Start as a sub, see if you like it, if you really hate it, you can look for something else.’ I first started subbing in Spanish classes, then one day, I picked up an ESOL class at Blair High School, and I said, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’ I could see myself in the kids, and I really liked working with them.”
Paiva, who became a permanent resident of the United States in September 2012, worked as a regular substitute teacher for ESOL classes throughout the county while earning her bachelor’s degree from the Shady Grove campus of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and her master’s from the University of Maryland College Park. She now works as a full-time ESOL teacher at Wheaton High School.
“These kids need a role model,” Paiva said. “Because of my experience, they can relate to me, and I can relate to them. It’s really awesome when I see them learn.”
Paiva said that, while she greatly enjoys her job, if given the opportunity, she would implement several changes in the county’s ESOL curriculum.
“I have 14- and 19-year-olds in the same class, and that’s a problem,” Paiva said. “Kids at those ages learn differently. A lot of immigrant girls get pregnant very young when they come here, so we need sex education classes specifically targeted to them. Also, a lot of immigrant students don’t really want to learn about American history and culture; they just want to get a job to support themselves, so I think the schools should provide more options for vocational training.”
Paiva said that the rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump, who has repeatedly called for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, has put several of her students on edge.
“I tell them, ‘Just do your schoolwork, go to your job, keep your head down and don’t do anything stupid,” Paiva said.
Paiva said she felt repulsed by the recent rape of a 14-year-old girl by two undocumented immigrants at Rockville High School but also dismayed that many national commentators were seizing upon the incident as a justification for Trump’s immigration policies or for terminating federal aid to Montgomery County to punish the county government for its policy of non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
“I would like these people to actually meet my students,” Paiva said. “Yes, just like any other group, there are people who do awful things, but most of them really just want to work hard and do better for themselves. I’ve noticed that ESOL kids really appreciate opportunities that other students take for granted. I have people in my classes who work 48 hours a week while going to high school.”
Paiva is in the process of applying for American citizenship.