As a fourth-grader in Othello, Angela Vargas served as a translator for another girl in her class who had just come from Mexico.
Vargas, now 20, said her teacher didn't speak Spanish and couldn't communicate with the girl. Vargas, however, was bilingual and helped her classmate as best she could, though the girl still struggled.
"This poor little girl, by the end of the year, didn't know any English," she said.
Today, Vargas graduates from Washington State University Tri-Cities, turning around her childhood experiences into a degree in elementary education with concentrations in bilingual education and English language learning.
Vargas, of Pasco, said her parents, who are Mexican immigrants, have always emphasized education to their four children. Her parents attended college in Mexico before coming to the United States.
While her parents spoke mostly Spanish, Vargas said she grew up truly bilingual -- her two older sisters, who were English language learners when they started school in kindergarten, would come home speaking English, and she picked it up from them.
"I have no second language," she said. "English and Spanish are my first languages."
What set Vargas on a path toward a teaching career, though, was her third-grade teacher Lisa Davis in Othello.
"What I remember was feeling so special," she said, noting how Davis developed relationships with her students and always had a welcoming classroom.
Vargas' family moved to Pasco in 2006 during her freshman year and she graduated from Pasco High School in 2009. Vargas participated in the Running Start program and had her associate's degree when she went to the Richland campus for a screening interview.
Assistant professor Eric Johnson, who heads the school's bilingual education and English language learning program, said he was impressed by Vargas in the interview, especially after she told him she was bilingual. He encouraged her to take his program's graduate level courses.
"She just bought right into it," he said. "Then I found out she was a senior in high school."
The program trains teachers to teach in a dual-language environment or to help non-English speakers learn the language. Johnson said undergraduates may take graduate-level courses but that adds between 18 to 20 credits to what already is required for a bachelor's degree by doing so. Vargas was willing to take on that extra load and also was enthusiastic about getting into the classroom.
"Anytime I asked if anyone wanted to come help me with lessons, she was the first," he said.
Vargas said she and another student volunteered in Pasco School District classrooms and she saw firsthand the need for bilingual teachers. Some students gravitated toward her because she was part of their culture.
Larry Gregory, a retired Kennewick principal who taught one of Vargas' college classes and supervised her as a student teacher, said he was also impressed by her abilities.
Vargas was a student teacher for Abner Solano, a dual-language teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School, and did lesson preparations for kindergartners and first-graders. The work was challenging but she did very well, Gregory said, and the students were thrilled to work with her.
"If my grandkids were in her classroom, I'd be thrilled," he said.
Vargas had job offers from three school districts and accepted a bilingual teaching position in Pasco beginning in the fall. She said she is ready to do what she couldn't do for that girl she translated for years ago.
"I've listened to stories from my dad about how important it is to know (English)," she said. "Now I know techniques. I know games I can play with students so they learn."
-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org