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Jose de Jesus Melendez went to college at the age of 27 in order to expand his career opportunities. By the time he graduated, education was both the journey and the destination.
Born and raised in a remote village in Mexico with no electricity or services of any kind, Melendez said he was barely literate in his own language when he came to the U.S. He attended first through fourth grade, but those years were constantly interrupted.
“The teachers assigned to our village were not willing to teach school there,” Melendez said. “We would get a young teacher who would stay a couple months and then leave. Then there would be several months before we would get another teacher.”
When he was 15 Melendez came to the U.S. The oldest child in his family, it was his responsibility to join his uncles in California and make money to help support the family in Mexico. He said he worked in the Greater Salinas Valley for many years in the produce industry. By the time he was 24, he was still struggling to master the English language.
“I started to feel a strong desire to access systems that were obviously English-only systems of employment,” Melendez said.
Melendez said he started focusing on learning English, bought books and was Sesame Street’s No. 1 fan.
“I was glued to the TV to learn from that little program,” Melenedz said.
Eventually, learning English wasn’t enough and Melendez wanted an education. At 27, while living in Southern Oregon, he hurt his back while doing migrant labor work. He wanted to improve his situation and while reflecting on what to do next, he was encouraged to enter a 12-week, on-campus, GED program at the University of Oregon. But there were obstacles.
“When I showed up they said the program was for recent high school dropouts who were no older than 20, but I convinced them to let me stay,” Melendez said.
One of his teachers, Donna Wong, had also come to the U.S. as a child and understood the language and culture barriers. She helped him navigate the system and was integral in his success not only earning a GED, he said, but getting him to apply to college. He received a full scholarship to what was then called Southern Oregon State College in Ashland.
Lack of education and cultural differences continued to present challenges for Melendez.
“I was struggling so much I almost dropped out,” Melendez said. “I didn’t have the background to carry the class load.”
While at Southern Oregon, his counselor helped him get into appropriate academic classes and steered him toward EOU and its bilingual education minor. Melendez jumped at the suggestion, but what he expected to be a program taught in two languages turned out to be an English for Speakers of Other Languages minor. He felt isolated and again considered dropping out of school.
“The EOU Ambassadors Coordinator, Mindy Morrison, told me, ‘No, you are not leaving, end of story.’ She convinced me that going to college was the greatest missed opportunity I would ever have.”
Morrison helped Melendez navigate a system that confused him and pointed him to the Learning Center and tutoring programs.
“I was their best customer, getting help with science, math, and geography,” Melendez said.
With the transfer and the extra year of classes necessary to teach school, Melendez finished his degree in five years. During his student teaching stint in Ontario, he kept an eye out for a job working with second language learning students. He was hired to teach dual language split kindergarten and first grade classes.
“They had a contract for me to sign before I finished student teaching,” Melendez said.
There was a lot of regional interest in my teaching career. Local newspapers covered his first day in the classroom.
Education was no longer the path to a lifelong career for Melendez—it was the career and a calling as a student and a teacher. He taught elementary school for several years and earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with emphasis on English Language Learner education.
“I relied on the folks who gave me life and hope because they wanted what was best for me.”– Jose de Jesus Melendez, ’97
“I relied on the folks who gave me life and hope because they wanted what was best for me.”
Wanting to move into administration, Melendez earned another master’s degree in educational leadership. He became an elementary principal. Still hungry for learning, he went on to earn an Educational Specialist Degree, culminating with his superintendent credentials.
He helped open a new school in Mesa County in Colorado, then returned to the Northwest to serve the Meridian School District outside of Boise. His next stop was Washington state before coming to La Grande last year to head up the school district as its Director of Student Success.
He said the position is to assist families, connect them with community resources and help students be successful in La Grande’s K12 system.
“Our initiative is to create a culture of care,” Melendez said. “We make sure children are socially and emotionally healthy. We watch carefully and monitor when we include or exclude students and why.”
The other part of his job is coaching the district’s elementary school principals.
“I really love that part,” Melendez said. “When I was a school principal I needed coaches, too.”
The successful lifelong learner and educator, Melendez said he had some discouragement along the way, but chose to focus on the positive reinforcement he received.
Melendez said , “People would ask, ‘Why are you struggling here? You could go back to where you came from and you would be way better off.’ But I relied on the folks who gave me life and hope because they wanted what was best for me.”
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