Growing up in a rural village outside of Santiago Atitlán, Concepción Micaela, “Chonita,” didn’t think she was cut out for school. Her mom never stepped foot inside one and spent her days tailoring clothing to make a small income. Chonita’s father passed away when she was young, and her two brothers worked to support the family. When Chonita dropped out of school in 6th grade, she was already the most educated member of her extended family. Her mother thought that was plenty of schooling. After working in beading and embroidery for a few years, however, she felt that there was more to the world than her eyes could see. She soon found a school that had a weekend radio program and decided to give it a shot. While continuing her work during the week, she spent every Saturday for the next two years attentively glued to her radio, copying down the invisible host’s words in her notebook. If she needed help, she could visit a local public school on Sundays. It was during this time she decided she wanted to be a teacher. One Sunday in 2010, Chonita heard about a woman that was soliciting applications for a mentorship and scholarship program specifically created for indigenous girls from the nearby rural communities. At 18, Chonita was more than a few years older than the participants the program typically accepted, but her determination impressed her interviewers.
Once in the Starfish program, she was enthralled by all of the female role models around her, the likes of whom she had never encountered in her community. She was inspired by their ambition and their accomplishments, and it opened her eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. She started to see herself in them. Chonita accredits this model of exposure to altering the path she thought her life would take, and looking back, she says she now sees the intentionality of this model. She wasn’t the only one who experienced a drastic change in perspective. Her mother started leaving the house for the first time in years to attend the Starfish family meetings, and Chonita notes that little by little she started to see that women were meant for so much more than housework. Chonita’s mother saw that the education her daughter was receiving was the vehicle to opportunity, one that she lamented she nor her sons had. She was immensely proud of Chonita and became a driving force for her daughter’s continued education.
Two years later, Chonita graduated from high school and immediately earned a scholarship to enroll in the local university. She chose to study pedagogy and school management. Fast forward another two years, and Chonita had joined the Starfish team as a mentor for a group of young girls in Santiago Atitlán, not far from where she grew up. Not only was she becoming a role model for girls in her community, but she was also well on her way to meeting the four Starfish goals of economic independence, educational attainment, reproductive autonomy, and local leadership.
Now 27, Chonita teaches social studies to 7th and 8th graders at the Starfish Impact School. She acknowledges her time as a mentor as a vital part of her formation as an educator because it helped her learn how to empathetically motivate other young women.
Reflecting on her own time in Starfish in contrast to where she is now, she recognizes personal transformation and growth. “When I first started studying, I never envisioned plans or goals for myself. I was stuck in the moment. With Starfish’s coaching, I made a life plan for myself that helped me to foresee challenges and work toward their solutions. I never imagined that going to school and becoming a teacher could help me transform my community, but now it’s happening. I used to know nothing of the outside world, and now I’m teaching social studies to young women, constantly learning from them while they learn from me.”
Chonita has become one of the women she grew up admiring, and she’s not slowing down anytime soon. Her dream is to finish her university studies this year and complete her thesis next year. After that, she wants to keep pursuing other degrees and interests to continue to expand her mind and her opportunities, furthering her position as a role model. As for her students, she dreams they’ll seek to preserve their culture as they continue on in their formation as students and as Girl Pioneers. She affirms, “Education is transformational and helps us to be better family and community members. If they keep fighting to study and develop their socioemotional competencies, they will have many doors opened for them and they will reach their dreams. When a young woman is confident in her abilities, she can do anything.”
This is the second piece in a short blog series in honor of the important contributions that women have made throughout history and continue to make in our world. The first blog post in the series (“Unite with Girl Pioneers and #PressforProgress”) can be found here.