July 2, 2018 | Katherine Adams
When Carmen Canamar entered the U.S. from Mexico in 1994, she was young, couldn’t speak much English, and had only a ninth-grade education. Despite these challenges, she had a definite plan for herself: learn English, get a job and get an education. It was extremely difficult and it took a long time, but Canamar persisted in her dream.
Canamar graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Science in Geography and a minor in Latin American history, a full mastery of English, and an impending career as an educator in Pasadena Independent School District.
“I came to this country at age 22,” Canamar said. “My English was very basic. I went to the doctor because I was pregnant. I had a translator, but I knew I was missing things. I wanted to know everything so I had to learn English .”
Canamar began working to acquire better English skills and took classes to obtain her Spanish G.E.D. “I thought maybe I could get a job if I had my GED (diploma), even if I just spoke Spanish,” she said. But her goal was to work at the elementary school her children were attending and ultimately, to become a teacher. “I took a few semesters of English at AAMA (Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans) and then they said I should go to college and take intensive English.”
She enrolled at Houston Community College, took three semesters of intensive English classes and made the dean’s list.
“I applied at Pasadena I.S.D. to be a substitute teacher aide and I did that for about five months,” she said. “Then I took a paraprofessionals’ test and passed, and got a job in the district as a paraprofessional. After two years of that, my co-workers said I was doing the job of a teacher anyway and I should go to school and become a teacher.”
Canamar enrolled at San Jacinto College in 2008 and graduated in 2012. “I didn’t want to lose my job so I had to go part-time,” she said. “In 2013 I transferred into UH-Clear Lake and wanted to major in geography. That’s when I met (Associate Professor of Geography) Jeff Lash. He was one of the first professors I met and when I sat in his class the first time, he was talking about what we were going to be doing, and I just was worried. He saw me shaking my head.”
She said Lash sat next to her and asked why she seemed worried. “He was so nice,” Canamar said. But right at the end of the fall semester, things began to get very difficult in her life. “I was going through such hard times – and so many of them. I had so many deaths in my family during this time, including my father’s serious illness. It was the worst time, trying to study while attending to all these family problems, going back and forth to Mexico all the time. I was always asking God for strength.”
As her father’s illness worsened, Canamar said, she felt as though she was not well either. “I was so upset and worried, but Dr. Lash told me that family always comes first and not to worry about school,” she said. “He suggested I see a counselor here at the university to help me. I said I didn’t even know about that. He took me to Counseling Services to see a counselor to help me. He and my other professors helped me through these times, always.”
She said she spoke with her father about continuing her education during his illness, from which he has since recovered. “I asked him if it was important to him that I finish, because I was so tired, I was ready to give up so many times,” she said. “He told me, ‘It’s always good to go to school.’” So, Canamar said she would take her books to the hospital on her visits with him, to work on homework or study for her tests. “I would travel to Mexico to see him and take my backpack with my tablet and keep working on my papers to turn in,” she said. “It was not easy, but it is possible.”
From 2013 till her graduation in 2017, Canamar was only able to take two classes a semester while continuing to work as a paraprofessional in Pasadena I.S.D. “I took a few classes in Latin-American history because it’s my history and I only went to the ninth grade in Mexico,” she said. “I love history. Dr. Lash told me after a few classes that I only needed a few more to get my minor.”
With Lash’s help, assistance from other professors and her very supportive husband, Canamar graduated in summer 2017. “I also received the award for Outstanding Student of the Year for 2017 for geography,” she said. “Dr. Lash presented it to me. I was totally surprised when I got a letter saying I had been selected by my program’s faculty as the Outstanding Undergraduate Student 2017. It was wonderful.”
Of her time at UHCL, Canamar said that at age 46, it’s never too late to get your education. “It was so hard to learn the English,” she said. “I had supportive co-workers, a supportive husband, professors who always helped me, and I knew my children would need me to speak English so I could help them. My time at UHCL was like a dream. The time flew by and I liked what I studied. Now I am ready, as soon as I finish my certification exams, I will be able to teach elementary school or high school geography in my own classroom.”
For more information about UHCL’s Geography program, visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/degrees/geography-bs.