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Passing It On: E. Aurora Teacher Assistant Olivas Recognized as Student Success: Featured Alumnus

Saúl Olivas, a teacher assistant at C.I. Johnson Elementary School in East Aurora School District 131 and 2003 graduate of Waubonsee Community College, credits the experiences he gained at Waubonsee, interacting with outstanding faculty and staff and excelling at a variety of extracurricular activities, for preparing him to excel in his career helping special needs students and other local children find their own path to success.

All in all, Saúl Olivas has adjusted well to walking the halls of an East Aurora elementary school again.

But every so often, he still feels a bit awkward and tongue-tied.

“It’s not the school I attended as a kid, but sometimes, I still come face-to-face with teachers I had as a kid,” Olivas said. “They want me to call them by their first names, but it’s just hard; it still feels too disrespectful,” he said with a laugh.

For the last five years, Olivas, 33, has served as a teacher assistant for special needs students in classrooms at C.I. Johnson Elementary School, on Liberty Street, just east of Farnsworth Avenue. He also serves as fifth grade volleyball coach and coach of the school’s 100 Mile Club, which encourages students to walk, jog or run 100 miles each school year.

In coming months, however, Olivas said he hopes to take his place at the front of a classroom in the district, becoming a full colleague with his former educators as an elementary school teacher in East Aurora School District 131.

The achievement would serve as the latest step in a lifelong journey of learning for Olivas, the first and only person in his family to graduate college, to date.

For his dedication to education and his drive and passion to raise up a new generation of young learners in his home community, Waubonsee Community College is pleased to recognize Saúl Olivas, of Aurora, as its Student Success: Featured Alumnus for the month of March.

While born in Aurora, Olivas spent much of the first seven years of his life in his family’s native Mexico.

Returning to Aurora two-and-a-half decades ago, Olivas and his family dedicated his childhood to helping Olivas become the first in his family to graduate high school in 2000.

With an East Aurora High School diploma in hand, Olivas paused to evaluate his options.

“I was the first in my family to do this thing,” Olivas said. “I kind of knew I should go to college, but I didn’t really know what to do next.”

That changed when he began exploring Waubonsee, and discovered not just a goal, but a host of people and programs to help him make his dreams real.

As a first generation college student, Olivas qualified for Waubonsee’s TRIO and Student Support Services program, opening up a range of assistance options to him.
Funded by federal U.S. Department of Education grants awarded over five-year cycles and additional monies from the college, Waubonsee’s TRIO/SSS program provides a broad range of academic services to help students like Olivas, including academic planning and course registration; individualized tutoring; help in applying for and obtaining scholarships and financial aid; help in transferring to four-year schools; and guidance with life skills.

“The best thing was they (TRIO) helped me get the classes I really needed,” Olivas said. “They helped me find my way, when I didn’t know how.”

Once in those classes, Olivas said he also received a hand from a number of “great teachers,” including Associate Professor of Sociology Kathy Westman, Professor of Mathematics Bill Trunkhill, Associate Professor of Political Science and History Rich Kiefer, and Associate Professor of English Billy Clem.

“I wasn’t always an A or B student,” Olivas said. “So I needed a little help.”

But beyond the support he received from faculty and staff, Olivas said he benefited greatly from his involvement in a litany of extracurricular activities.

The list includes such organizations and clubs as Hispanic student organization Latinos Unidos, Waubonsee Student Senate and Model Illinois Government, as well as Waubonsee’s cross country and tennis teams, among others.

Olivas said the time he spent participating in those extracurriculars was just as important to him as the time he spent in class or elsewhere studying.

“They taught me a lot about leadership, about putting myself out there, and experiencing so many things,” said Olivas. “These activities energized me.”

And that involvement came on top of Olivas’ job at the Sears store at Westfield Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.

“I had to make sure everything was carefully planned, every week,” he said with a laugh.

Graduating from Waubonsee in 2003, Olivas transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, with a minor in sociology.

He eventually was hired at District 131 in 2010, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in elementary education through an online program offered by Grand Canyon University.

Olivas said he carries what he learned from his time at Waubonsee into the classroom and other assignments every day.

The discipline he learned while juggling his studies with a job and extracurriculars, and the leadership skills developed while participating in so many activities, have helped him take initiative, while still working steadily toward his dream of teaching.

And the compassion, attentiveness and diligence he learned from so many faculty and staff at Waubonsee prepared him in many ways for working with disadvantaged or troubled students at his school, as well.

“I remember being in their seats, not sure what to do or how to do it,” said Olivas. “But so many of my teachers, if they saw me struggling, they were there to help, and it’s made me able to connect with my students, because they know I know how they feel.

“All those experiences have prepared me, and opened me up to what I’m doing now.”