When Jessica Pedroza ’17 enrolled in private high school in her hometown of Phoenix, she remembers feeling behind her classmates academically — even though she had graduated from her public middle school with a 4.0 GPA as valedictorian and president of the student council.
“I was super behind, years behind my peers when I arrived at that private school, and it was frustrating to be so behind, realizing that I hadn’t gotten the same kind of education as my peers,” Pedroza says.
She worked hard in high school, where she also earned a 4.0, and then went on to study political science at Notre Dame, get a master’s degree in teaching, and ultimately work in Congress as a legislative assistant for Rep. Ruben Gallego, who represents her home district in Arizona. Now, she is focused on improving equity in the U.S. education system, so future generations of students don’t have to confront the same barriers she did.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants — her dad worked as a landscaper and her mom at McDonald’s — Pedroza commuted to high school on the city bus every day, a three-hour round trip. She worried about affording textbooks and uniforms. When it came time to apply for college, her family wasn’t familiar with the process; Pedroza is part of the first generation in her family to graduate from college. Her own journey deeply inspires the work she is doing today.
“It’s the realization that not every student has the same opportunities,” she says. “Every student has a ton of promise, but they might not have the resources that they need to reach their goals. Sometimes there are more barriers, and it’s not just education. Everything is interrelated.”
At Notre Dame, Pedroza was a part of the AnBryce Scholars Initiative, which supports first-generation college students who demonstrate exceptional promise. Pedroza not only received a full-tuition scholarship, but says the AnBryce Scholars provided “the community I needed to navigate college.”
Today, in Rep. Gallego’s office, Pedroza focuses on issues in education and policies impacting the Latinx community. She’s currently working on a bill to support and invest in the teacher workforce. The work includes writing the text of the bill, engaging with stakeholders who the bill would support, and working with other members of Congress and legislative aides to gain support for the ideas in the bill.
“I’ve been helping support the Congressman’s agenda on education, and teacher diversity and retention, especially now amid an exacerbated teacher shortage and burnout and all of the challenges that come with being a teacher during a pandemic,” Pedroza says. “Thinking of ways to support teachers and, in turn, support students.”
Pedroza can empathize with teachers because she was one. She spent three years — including during remote learning from March to June of 2020 — teaching fifth-grade science and social studies in Chicago. She taught and earned her master’s degree from the Relay Graduate School of Education as part of the Teach for America (TFA) program, inspired by the TFA teachers who worked at her middle school.
One, in particular, Mr. Nguyen, was the one who encouraged her to apply to that private high school and helped guide Pedroza and her family through the process. He’s kept in touch with the family, from attending Pedroza’s 15th birthday celebration to her recent baby shower.
“I decided to go into teaching to have a similar impact, or close to a similar impact, as my teacher had on me,” Pedroza says. “Believing in my kids and really just pouring my heart into making my class relevant and fun and rigorous. And to communicate with parents — I knew that was a big part of what I wanted to do. I speak Spanish, so I wanted to actually talk to parents who speak Spanish, because my parents never got that. They never got a teacher who could actually speak to them and not through me.”
When it came time to move on, it was difficult to leave her students, but Pedroza wanted to take her teaching experience and transition to policy work for an even larger impact. She earned an Education Graduate Fellowship with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, where she worked with UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights organization.
“There, I was able to research the disproportionate effects of school resource officers on students of color,” says Pedroza, who also worked in the office of Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (NM), a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, as part of the fellowship.
“I’m so interested in education because I want to make sure that students of color, immigrant students, students with disabilities, low-income students, first-generation students, everyone has access to the same resources and has access to quality education,” says Pedroza, whose dedication to these efforts earned her a spot among the Notre Dame Alumni Association’s 2021 Domer Dozen cohort. This honor is awarded to 12 young alumni each year who exemplify at least one of the core tenets of the Alumni Association’s mission statement — faith, service, learning, and work.
“[I want everyone to have an education] where they can follow their dreams and they’re not facing barrier after barrier in different levels of their education, aside from barriers they might face with access to health care or resources in their language, or the anxiety of having deferred action or if you’re in a mixed-status family,” Pedroza says. “There are so many other barriers; I’m trying to make a dent in one of them, which is education.”