SILER CITY — While growing up in Siler City, Ilsen Lopez wanted to become an FBI agent — and when that didn’t work out, she moved on to the next best thing: helping children.
On Feb. 1, she took up a position as Communities In Schools’ first bilingual student support specialist in Chatham Middle School, a role in which she said she hopes to offer students the support she wished she’d had when she was in school.
“I want to be that person that I didn’t have growing up,” said Lopez, 25. “I didn’t have many role models growing up, so my hope is to be one of them for somebody, you know. I know that I can’t be a role model for everybody. It doesn’t work like that. But I do want to make a difference in somebody’s life.”
In her position as student support specialist, Lopez will provide individualized support to students and their families in English and Spanish, empowering Chatham Middle students to overcome issues related to attendance, behavior and coursework. She’ll also be working with school administration to help them supply students with the best environment.
“It’s pretty much just helping them [students] succeed,” she said. “That’s the number one goal.”
She’ll be working with 50 students ranging from 6th to 8th grade, many of them Hispanic. Chatham Middle’s student body is over 74% Hispanic, according to the school system’s January ethnic enrollment report.
Since starting, she’s been undergoing a whole lot of training under CIS program director Jazmin Mendoza Sosa, getting to know the ins and outs of her role. Lopez has also introduced herself to her students to begin developing trust and establishing a foundation from which she can support each of them — be that offering a few words of encouragement or providing a safe space for classwork. She’ll be meeting teachers this week and families in the weeks to come.
“So far, it’s going really well,” Lopez said. “Not everybody wants to talk to you. Not everybody just opens up. I’m not there for them to open up right away. I want to build a foundation. I want them to know that they can trust me, and I want them to know that I’m their support.”
That’s part of the reason Mendoza Sosa, her supervisor, said she’s excited to have Lopez on the CIS team.
“As an alumna to Chatham County Schools and a community member living in Siler City, Ilsen understands the needs and the opportunities for our kids,” Mendoza Sosa told the News + Record. “Even though Ilsen has limited experience in this role, she has proven in the short time she has the desire to provide the community of support to the students at Chatham Middle School.”
A native of Tiquisate, Guatemala, Lopez immigrated to Siler City with her family when she was a small child. They sought a better life. After arriving in Siler City, Lopez enrolled as a 3rd grader in Siler City Elementary School — a place she said she grew to love.
“Everybody welcomed me with open arms,” she said, “and that’s where I learned English because coming here, I didn’t know a bit of English.”
She was fluent in English by 5th grade, but acquiring the language, of course, came with a few hiccups at first.
“The struggle was that I felt like nobody understood me,” she said. “I had an accent. I felt like people were making fun of it, making fun of my accent, or how I spoke.”
She also had to interpret and translate for her mother, who doesn’t speak English.
“It was really hard knowing both languages because my mom expected me to know everything,” Lopez said. “So growing up, it was like, ‘Can you translate this?’ So, I would try it every time I have a phrase and think, ‘OK, how can I put this in a sentence where she would understand?’”
She added with a laugh: “I was afraid she’d say, ‘You’re supposed to know this.’”
From Siler City Elementary, she went to Chatham Middle and Jordan-Matthews High School, from which she graduated in 2015. She then left Siler City and spent about a year traveling throughout the northern U.S. — including cities like New York, Washington, D.C., Boston and Baltimore.
She returned to the area in 2017.
“I got a job and I just didn’t think of school, and I thought, ‘Like, you know, I’m not 18,’” she said. “Just the thought of going to school back then was just, like, a little scary.”
She worked first as an administrative coordinator at a daycare center for about a year, before taking another role as a machine operator at Brisco Apparel in Ramseur. Then, in February of 2020, everything changed — and not because of COVID-19.
Her daughter Scarlett came into the world.
“I had her … just before everything went crazy,” she said. “I remember like it was yesterday, when I was in the hospital, you know, my family could still be there. Then I stayed there for a couple of days, and then, two weeks later, everything was shut down. I was very lucky.”
Upon returning to work, she moved into a sales role — “an amazing experience,” she said, where she met many great friends and truly learned to communicate with others. Last year, however, after just over three years at Brisco Apparel, she decided it was time to do something different.
“I’m like, ‘I have to do something with my life,’” Lopez said with a laugh. “You know, I gotta do something for this child — not just for her, but for me, too.”
As of right now, Lopez wants to go back to school part-time and ultimately study something related to education or psychology. So, when she stumbled upon an opening for a Chatham Middle student support specialist late last year, everything seemed to click into place.
“It’s definitely a great place to start,” she said, “and I kind of want to feel the environment to see if that’s really what I want, because I know a lot of people just go for it, and they don’t end up loving it. I want to love what I do.”
She applied for the Siler City position late last year, and after a series of interviews, she received an offer in January to start the following month — much to her surprise.
“At first, you know, it was just like, ‘I’m gonna give it a go,’ but I didn’t really think it was gonna go anywhere if I’m honest with you,” she said, laughing. “I’m like, OK, and then everything got real when Tych [Cowdin, CIS’s executive director] contacted me.”
The role stood out to her both for its location and purpose.
First, Lopez knew Chatham Middle as a former student, and second, when she attended the school, she didn’t have the support she needed to succeed. At the time, she recalled, the school didn’t have any such student support specialists — only a guidance counselor “who told us what we already knew.” Lopez graduated in 2011.
“Well, they could have helped somebody else, but me personally, it was just stuff that I already knew,” she said. “Like, ‘You have to do good in school,’ you know? I’m not the type of person who talks about my feelings. I hate talking about my feelings just because I don’t want people to feel pity.”
This new role, then, presented an opportunity to provide the next generation of students the help she wished she’d had as a middle school student.
“I thought, ‘Wow, like, who wouldn’t want to do that, right? Who wouldn’t want to do that? Who wouldn’t want to be there for a kid?’” she said. “You know, now that I have a kid of my own, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna do that for her too.’”
About a month into the job, Lopez said she has done quite a bit of learning — and she hopes to do even more. She’ll fully assume the reins of her role in early March.
Ultimately, Lopez seeks to show Chatham Middle students that someone’s listening to them and will be there for them whatever they need.
“‘I’m here for this reason,’” Lopez said she wants her students to know. “‘I’m gonna be here these days, you know. I’m here to support you.’”
For her part, Lopez’s supervisor, Mendoza Sosa, looks forward to seeing where she takes the role.
“Ilsen is always willing to learn, and she asks questions and wants to understand her role well so she can be the best student support specialist she can be,” Mendoza Sosa said. “[She] brings new ideas, and I can’t wait to see her bloom in this role.”
Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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