As children, many of us were absolutely convinced what we would do for a career. Doctor, teacher, professional baseball player, senator, circus clown. You name it, the die was cast. Then, somewhere along the way, things changed and our rock-ribbed decisions became internal debates.
Not so for Ixchell Reyes. Her career chose her, and there was never a course correction.
“I’m from Mexico, and English is my second language,” says Reyes. “When I was learning English, I started to see the difference in the languages and what it all meant. I was obsessed. I love words.”
Words are her world, which she shares with … well, the world. As a lecturer at the University of Southern California International Academy, she specializes in teaching English as an additional language to students who hail from all corners of the globe.
She enjoys the work immensely, but her vocation takes on a bit more importance to her and to her students. Given the various backgrounds of her pupils, she knows she needs to prepare them for a world where they must convey emotions and ideas accurately. It’s simply not enough to cover grammar and sentence structure.
“Everything boils down to effective communication,” Reyes says. “I have students who come from countries where women aren’t allowed to drive, citizens can’t criticize their government or access information without fear of persecution. I want my students to see that language shapes thinking and that thinking shapes behavior. This can lead to social change.”
Reyes is well suited to make her points. She’s studied several languages, including Arabic, Mandarin and French. She speaks English and Spanish fluently and can communicate in elementary Japanese (she taught in Japan for four summers and trained teachers). She can also hold her own in American Sign Language. Additionally, Reyes earned a master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (tesol) from California State University, San Bernardino.
But with this extensive expertise, there is one language that has a special place in her heart: Serrano.
Not very long ago, this Native American language was endangered, slipping away day by day. Reyes, and others, however, got the chance of a lifetime. They worked with a tribe in Southern California to keep Serrano alive and help it thrive. Reyes was part of a team that recorded and catalogued tribal elders speaking, then transcribed the material to create a dictionary. She then put together a series of lessons to teach Serrano to the tribe’s children.
“It was very difficult … I was an outsider and the language wasn’t written down. I had to earn their trust in order to teach,” she describes. “But there is no greater reward than having young students come into the classroom, say ‘hello’ in their language, then let me know that they are sharing [Serrano] with their families and friends. I am so fortunate to be able to have this experience. I got to affect history.”
Meanwhile, she’ll continue to impact the present and future through not only teaching but advocacy. In addition to her current career, Reyes is a board member for the California Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages in the Inland Empire in California (catesol). She’s also a media technology team coordinator for the organization, where she uses social media to raise catesol’s online presence and increase membership.
Reyes, who was recognized in 2014 as an emerging leader, hopes that her story informs people about the value of English as a Second Language (ESL). “We just don’t have the resources for ESL programs like we do in other areas,” Reyes says.
There’s no doubt that her commitment to her students and her passion for languages are intense. She doesn’t want to waste words – “the true art of communication is being able to use every single word precisely to create a clear picture”– anymore than she wants to waste an opportunity to make a difference, but she is able to strike a balance.
She loves her cats, digital photography and social media. And her idea of a great day – taking pictures of her pets and creating memes for them in the many languages she loves – combines all three.
Her students, though, are her No. 1 priority. The calling she received as a little girl is as loud now as it’s ever been. For Reyes, it’s not enough to teach – she has to reach her students and help them see that what they’re learning matters more than they may think.
“Words are extremely powerful,” Reyes says. “Wars have been fought over words. As a teacher of English as an additional language, I need to prepare students for the world. I plan and develop my lessons very carefully. Words and languages connect us.”
And for some, they are ikigai, a Japanese concept that means “reason for being.”
Tim Douglas is a former television news producer who also served as a senior media consultant for several speakers of the California state assembly. today, Douglas is a freelance writer who covers a wide range of topics.