By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
To think she didn’t consider herself talented enough to run at the college level, or that she didn’t want to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher.
Those were Yessenia Gonzales thoughts when she was deciding where to attend college and choosing her major about five years ago.
Friday, Gonzales will cross the stage at Gross Memorial Coliseum, during Fort Hays State University’s first fall semester graduation, brimming with confidence.
Following a successful academic and athletic career at FHSU, Gonzales will graduate summa cum laude (3.92 GPA) with a bachelor’s in teacher Education. She will begin the new year as a sixth-grade social studies and language arts teacher in her hometown of Elkhart. She also will serve as an assistant track coach for the middle and high school teams before taking over as head cross country coach for both levels next fall.
Gonzales was offered the full-time teaching position after student teaching at Elkhart Middle School during the fall semester. The opportunity to land a teaching position at mid-year came about after postponing her student teaching one semester to concentrate on her senior season with the Tiger track and field team last spring.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions she made during her college career. Spring semester 2019 for Gonzales was one to remember for sure.
In February, Gonzales was honored by the Kansas Exemplary Educators Network as FHSU’s Teacher of Promise for elementary education. She then won three big distance races in March and was named MIAA athlete of the week before finishing out her collegiate career with two top-six finishes at the MIAA Championships. She made the MIAA academic honor roll every year.
Gonzales bubbles with excitement while talking about all the opportunities presented her at FHSU.
As a member of the 2016 Tiger cross country team that qualified for nationals in Florida, Gonzales got the opportunity to fly on an airplane for the first time. Last spring, the Tigers competed in a track meet in California, where she won her heat in a competitive 5,000-meter race.
Sandwiched between those trips to opposite coasts, Gonzales earned valuable experience while observing three different classrooms in the Hays area. And she says FHSU’s teacher education program is second to none.
“The professors, and the chair, at Fort Hays State are amazing,” Gonzales said. “Seeing their passion for teaching has made me want to be a teacher even more.”
That wasn’t always the case. Gonzales watched her single mother of two sometimes struggle with a teacher’s pay. So she didn’t think that was the career she wanted to pursue – until she switched her major after one semester, from speech language pathology to teacher education.
“I realized I wanted to help students through teaching. Then, as I was going through the FHSU program and the curriculum, I realized I wasn’t doing it for the money,” she said. “To help students grow into something more, that’s the ultimate. That’s why I want to coach, too.”
Gonzales’ mother, Antonia Villa, is now the principal at Elkhart Middle School – and will be her daughter’s boss come January.
Now, that’s pressure.
Gonzales admits she wasn’t so sure at first about the idea of student teaching in her hometown.
“Everyone knew me from when I started school there, so they expect a higher standard,” she said. “But I appreciate that. I don’t like settling. I always want more. So that just makes me want to reach that high standard.”
Setting – and living up to – high expectations is something that Gonzales said she learned in many different ways at Fort Hays State.
“Being on an athletic team, it made me realize it takes multiple people to be successful,” she said. “You have to learn how to adjust to all kinds of situations, and that holds true as a teacher, too. That has helped me with life in general. It’s been quite a ride, and I’ve loved every second of it.”
By Diane Gasper-O’Brien