Life is a journey we all must make, setting out on our path from the day we first appear on the planet. For some, the metaphorical journey of their life is filled with literal journeys that sometimes take them in directions they never would have imagined. Their fate leads them on a path that they seemed destined to follow, and they wind up in exactly the place they were meant to be. Bilingual Educator Lily Medina is one such person, and that place she was meant to be? Right here in the Ottawa Elementary School District.
A Journey to a Calling
Lily has been with OES 141 for 15 years, the first 14 as a first grade teacher. She started in her new position as an Education Specialist this year, working one-on-one with Spanish-speaking English language learners at Lincoln and Jefferson schools. Her journey began, however, in the office rather than in the classroom. Her first position in a school was as a secretary, but being bilingual, she was pulled into classrooms often to translate for Spanish-speaking students. She soon came to the realization that she very much enjoyed being in the classroom and working directly with students, and began taking college classes, earning her teaching degree from Illinois State University in 2008.
While still at ISU, some friends of Lily’s were planning to attend a job fair, but Lily was not initially going to join them. Besides, she wasn’t confident in her interviewing skills, and didn’t even have a resume prepared. “Let’s just go and see what happens,” her friends cajoled her. So, she gave in and went to the job fair, where she spoke with representatives from a couple of different school districts. Among those districts, OES was the only one for which she completed an application. She interviewed a couple of times with Ottawa, first by phone and then in person, and was offered a position in February of that year. She was still three months from graduation, and had gotten a job from the only school district she had applied to at a job fair that she didn’t even want to attend. “I think when things are meant to happen, they’re meant to happen,” she muses.
She might be also speaking of her family’s improbable journey from central Mexico to northern Illinois. Although she and one of her two brothers were born in Mendota, her parents and older brother were in the country illegally, and were deported. The whole family returned to Mexico, but her father soon decided that he could not support them all on the wages he was making there. He crossed back into the U.S. alone, and lived and worked here for nine years, sending money home to his family. At this point, Lily’s mother decided that it was time for her father to either bring them all back to the U.S., or come home to stay. So, another arduous crossing was planned.
Even though she and one brother were U.S. citizens, the trip was not without risk for them. She remembers the “coyotes”, men who helped people cross illegally, showing her the spot on the riverbank where her parents would be when they crossed, and urging her to do whatever the family with whom she was crossing told her to do. But they made it across without incident, waiting on the American side of the Rio Grande for the rest of the family, her mother on a wooden raft, holding her brother. They all got across safely, and were once again together in the United States. Soon after, her father began to take the steps necessary to become a citizen, and eventually the entire family followed. Looking back on her childhood now, she can see where the inspiration for what would become her career began. “I felt like I had really good teachers as I went through elementary and high school. I always had people who were supporting me,” she remembers. “I feel like that’s the path that really led me to education, because I wanted to give back to all those teachers that did so much, not just for me, but even my family,” she says. “They were so involved.”
Besides education, Lily has another passion. “I run. A lot,” she laughs. But, she’s not joking – she is an ultramarathon runner, covering as many as 100 miles in less than 24 hours. “If I’m not home with my family, I’m usually out running,“ she states. Surprisingly, she’s only been running competitively for about a year, progressing from half-marathons to ultramarathons in that span. Although it can be physically grueling to run that distance, Lily finds that the mental strain is more difficult to manage. “That’s the hardest part,” she says,” your brain just plays games with you.” To combat the stress, she leans on friends, having them call her in the wee hours of the morning to talk and get her mind off the race.
Lily is grateful that she also has friends in the district that she can lean on, especially at Jefferson School. “A lot of us started together as brand-new teachers,” she relates. “I feel like we can go to each other and say ‘I need help with this,’ or ‘this is what’s going on, what can I do?’” That camaraderie is one of her favorite aspects of working in the district, one of the reasons she is glad her journey has brought her here. From Mendota to Mexico and back, through a career change, and over the hundreds of miles of road she has covered, one thought has carried her through: “Believe in you. Believe that anything is possible, you just have to work hard.”