How I pushed through Philly’s education system and learned to embrace my roots

Solmaira Valerio stands outside of Mastbaum High School, where she graduated from before pursuing photography at the Community College of Philadelphia and journalism at Temple University. (Photo by Erin Blewett)

*Editor’s note: The author works as a multimedia reporter for Kensington Voice.

I was born and raised in Kensington, but my first language isn’t English. As someone who is half Puerto Rican and half Dominican, Spanish is all I heard at home when I was growing up.

From the time I was in kindergarten until I got to high school, I went through various English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. However, none of them met my needs. My experiences as a student in the Philadelphia School District made me feel like something was wrong with me — like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I had to hide where I came from and who I was as a person because my language and roots were a disadvantage.

At my first elementary school, an ESL teacher would come to class for a few hours and sit with me to review some work in English, which made me feel singled out. I eventually transferred to another school, where the ESL classes were separate. However, Spanish was not my teacher’s first language, and our cultural differences interfered with my learning.

In middle school, I no longer qualified for ESL support, so I took it upon myself to do the best that I could with what I knew. Most of the time, I would write out the lyrics to English songs I liked. I would also watch English shows and movies with the captions on. I journaled a lot and always tried to practice paragraph and sentence structures on my own, too.

By the time I entered high school, I felt comfortable reading and speaking English. However, I still struggled with writing. The school didn’t offer me any accommodations to help me with my coursework. I also didn’t get any assistance in preparing for my SATs.

I remember sitting in front of my SATs, not knowing how to write a standard paragraph for the open-ended questions. I guessed and wrote as best as I could, but I had to retake the exam multiple times because I continued to get low scores. I graduated from high school feeling unqualified and unprepared to apply to college.

Fortunately, I had a teacher before graduation who took the time to help me fill out my first college application for West Chester University. However, even though she helped me with my admissions essay, I still did not get full acceptance. The university required me to pass summer classes there that focused on English and intensive writing. It was discouraging, and I turned down the opportunity because I did not feel like I was qualified to succeed in the classes that were offered to me.

Instead, I went to The Community College of Philadelphia, where I decided to study photography. I knew that I really enjoyed taking photos, and I felt like this was something I could succeed at because it did not revolve around writing. I failed my English placement test when I applied, so I had to take an introductory English class before taking any for-credit courses.

On my first day of that class, when the professor asked us to write a short paragraph about ourselves, I raised my hand and asked her how to start writing one. She looked at me in disbelief. I felt really embarrassed and incompetent. At that point, I still didn’t know how to structure a sentence, let alone a full paragraph. But that was a turning point for me.

Instead of assigning me to read a book on my own, the professor sat down and helped me work through each sentence. She made sure that I understood what each sentence was saying, and she explained to me why and how it was grammatically correct. I wrote my first paper in that class, and I worked on it alongside my professor for a whole semester. It was one of the first times I felt I was correctly assisted with reading, speaking, and writing in English.

After passing that class, I avoided work that involves writing because I still felt like my skills weren’t good enough. It wasn’t until I transferred to Temple that I couldn’t avoid writing anymore.

Now I’m a senior majoring in journalism and minoring in psychology. When I tell people I’m a journalism major, but I would like to avoid writing, most people laugh. I am focusing on photo and videojournalism, but I’ve written some stories, too. Despite my fear of writing, I decided to pursue journalism anyway. I feel like I have a responsibility to share the stories and experiences of others, especially those in vulnerable and underrepresented communities.

I still get really anxious when I write papers for class. However, I feel more comfortable writing today than I did before. I also understand that it was not my fault that I did not know how to write proficiently in English. The problems I faced were more so the result of the lack of assistance in public schools in marginalized neighborhoods like Kensington, where I grew up.

Looking back, I wish that I didn’t allow outside forces to make me feel like some of the most beautiful parts of myself were a disadvantage. I have learned how to embrace myself and the complexity and richness of my cultures. Today, I focus on using my family’s history as a way to connect with others and highlight under-reported stories that need to be told.


What did you think about this story? Send a note to editors@kensingtonvoice.com, and we’ll consider publishing it in our Voices section. Or, if you have a question you’d like us to explore in future issues, submit it through Curious Kensington. You can also tell us what you think in person at our neighborhood events.

Editor: Siani Colón / Story Designer: Jillian Bauer-Reese / Translator: Kristine Aponte

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