Student Spotlight: Ericca Chavez

Picture of Ericca Chavez

UTEC Student Ericca Chavez


Year: Junior
Cohort: 2027
Credential: Mild/Moderate Support Needs Education Specialist
Major: Sociology
Program: 4+2 Special Education credential and Masters

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Question: You are a pioneer! You are our very first 4+2 Special Education credential/Masters student. On this track, you will earn your Bachelors, Mild/Moderate Support Needs Education Specialist Preliminary Teaching Credential and Master of Arts in Special Education. You also work full-time as a paraprofessional for St. Mary’s McAuley Counseling Enriched Education Program (CEEP), which is an outpatient program offered jointly by St. Mary’s Adolescent Psychiatric Services, the San Francisco Department of Public Health-Behavioral Health Services, and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). Tell me a little bit about your job, what led you there, and your interest in Special Education.

Career in Special Education

Ericca: I started straight out of high school in 2010. Just like a lot of young people, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And, you know, it’s funny, I never thought of myself as wanting to be a teacher, even when I was a paraprofessional or a teacher’s aide in Bakersfield. That was never the track that I wanted to be on. But the more experience that I had in the classroom supporting teachers and, at times, teaching curriculum in small groups, I realized that not only could I be a teacher, but I could be a very, very good teacher, a very impactful teacher.

So I was working in Bakersfield and I started out as a substitute paraprofessional. And within the first two weeks, I was supporting young children who are autistic. I then ended up in a social-emotional type classroom for students with emotional disabilities. I was working at that time in kindergarten through third grade. I remember specifically there was one student who was in kindergarten, and he was just having a really challenging time. He was calling me every name in the book and he wanted me to fight him. It kind of shocked me, wondering, how did we get here? And then even more so, how can I support him? Because to me, I was just thinking, you know, this is a baby. This is somebody who shouldn’t be fostering these feelings. Yet they were. So rather than holding [the student] to those feelings or taking to heart the things that he was saying, it really was eye-opening for me. I really wanted to know what happened and his life story that led him here and how can I help him to be able to to cope and to regulate and to manage those feelings and maybe channel them into something else, transform them.

So after that day—a lot of these classes are short on staff—they picked me up right away and I ended up working at that same school site and with that same group of students all the way up until they graduated into sixth grade. When they graduated into sixth grade, a majority of my students, and those of my team, had mainstreamed out of the classroom. They were very successful and very grateful. I still talk to a lot of my students to this day. They’ll stop by my parents meat shop, a grocery store in Bakersfield, and they’ll update them and they’ll ask about me and how San Francisco is going.

[These students] were the ones that celebrated me making this move to San Francisco and continuing the journey of my profession. They all got together with the teacher of the class, Kristin Niswonger—who is still to this day very dear to me—and they got a copy of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. And they adapted it to San Francisco, with me traveling there, and they all wrote notes to me. It was really special to me. The first group of kids are very special to me and I still keep in touch with them. Some of them even have children of their own. It kind of trips me out because here I am still doing the same thing. But now, thankfully to to you and the UTEC program, I’m a little bit more clear about how long it’s going to take me to be in my own classroom. I feel a bit more supported extending my platform and hopefully making an impact on more people’s lives.

Working in SFUSD

I was looking at different programs in SFUSD because San Francisco has always been special to me. I have some cousins that live over here and I would always come up [from Bakersfield]. And, you know, being a young queer, non-binary person, I’ve always felt at home and safe here. So I was looking for positions and I saw positions open in the SOAR [Success, Opportunity, Achievement, Resiliency] Academy within SFUSD. I applied for that job and I actually didn’t get it, but they offered me another position in a moderate to severe higher needs-level classroom. I was working with a lot of non-verbal families there. They ended up pulling me midway through the year because they couldn’t retain educators in the SOAR classrooms, so they really needed support. I somehow ended up going into that classroom and staying there for two years. Ever since then, I’ve been working with SOAR classrooms.

Last year I had the opportunity to expand in my profession and jump into a Registered Behavior Technician role. So I did the hours that I needed and passed my certification. I was then able to secure that position as a Registered Behavior Technician. That happened to be at McAuley, which is the outpatient program with Saint Mary’s. And these are some of the the coolest, most down-to-earth individuals that I could ever ask to work with. I think it’s because of the things that they’ve gone through in their lives. But they keep it real, you know, and I’ve always appreciated that. And I do the same for them. I try not to hold them to any of their diagnoses or their experiences, but try to be a mirror for them and show them what I see when I look at them. I see a bunch of real, amazing down-to-earth people that, honestly, the world needs more of. I love it, even though there’s so much complications within not only the education-industrial complex, but also the medical-industrial complex. It’s important for us to be real about those things so that we don’t just keep perpetrating the harm that those places can hold, you know?

Coming to USF and Joining UTEC

Question: I know you have connections with UTEC alum. Is that how you learned about our program? What made you decide that USF was the place you wanted to go?

Ericca: Oh, man, I’m such a creature of habit. If I could have, I probably would have stayed at City College for the rest of my life. Because I love it and I love the professors there. I love the work that’s being done there. But there just wasn’t a clear path for me. It was also really hard because, you know, the struggles of being an educator. It’s not as sustainable as it should be, especially for paraeducators. I don’t know if a lot of our credentialed colleagues understand that, but it’s really difficult for paraeducators. And so I have a lot of beautiful homegirls in SFUSD and different sectors of SFUSD. And two of those people are Araceli Leon and Sandra Guerrero. They were working with me at Buena Vista Child Care summer camp. Again, all beautiful people that I consider family. So it is how I connected and networked. One of the old office managers for Leonard Flynn, which is a school that I used to work at as well in the Mission, was one of the program directors of the Buena Vista Child Care Centers now. She offered me a job for the summer building a garden for the school.

That’s when I was working with Araceli, who I’ve always been in contact with. We had a chance to really cultivate a stronger relationship and she plugged me in. She said, “You know, you do such amazing work and I see you. I want to let you know that I had support getting into [the UTEC program]. I really trust these people.” She was talking about you and [UTEC director] Mary [Coen]. She was just saying, “They helped me. They helped Sandra. I really think that if you are committed we can help you. We know that you can do it.” It really kind of shook me in a good way, because like I said, if I’m comfortable and if I’m okay and, honestly, if I’m surviving, I tend to just keep going with the motions. But, you know, am I fully living in my vitality? Am I fully jumping into who I can be and who I want to be as far as support for my students and my families? Not really, because there are so many barriers for paraprofessionals to have the impact that they they really do have and that they could have.

So when [Araceli] had told me that, it almost felt like things were opening up for me and unfolding. Then when I met with you and Mary and I talked to Sharon Zimmern [at SFUSD] about the Para to Teacher program, I felt a lot more confident. I think it was from the conversation that we were having where it felt like I was going to be held throughout this process. I think a lot of people think of being held as being coddled in a way, and they think of it as a negative thing. But honestly, being held is such a beautiful thing and it can really build strength and empowerment. I wish a lot more people would think of it as a way to meet people where they’re at and to help them along the way. Help them to build that strength to where not only can they do it on their own, but they can advocate for other people to do the same.

Balancing a Full-Time Job as a Full-Time Student

Question: You are holding a full-time job and you’re a full-time student. How do you balance things? How do you take care of yourself? Do you have tips for other students, other paraprofessionals, who may want to do this program?

Ericca: You know, it’s hard. It’s a challenge. We live in a very capitalist, individualist type of society. And being in SFUSD, in San Francisco, in our bubble, isn’t too far away from those factors. We perpetrate those things just as much as some small heavily conservative town does. We have to acknowledge that if we want to change it. So I think the biggest tip that I can have is for you to stand firm in your values and to stay aligned in those things. Because there are so many times where people are going to hold even the finances of the district or bigger faults of the world at large on us as paraeducators and students. But it’s not ours. It’s not ours to carry. And what we can do is stay grounded. Why am I choosing to go to school? Why am I showing up every day? What values do I hold and how can I keep true to those? Because as soon as you start straying from those, you’re really going to start feeling exhausted. Once you lose sight of those things, you start hitting levels of burnout, especially for people who are educators. It’s really unfortunate. Because in SFUSD—and schools across the world—but especially in these socially stratified places, we are losing good people who have a heavy impact on students and the community. [Educators] who are from these communities that they serve. Because we’re not taking care of them.

So I think my biggest advice is don’t be afraid of rules and expectations that stem from capitalism. Lean into the things that really make you human, because that models for our students something to look forward to. You know, working in the environment of [St. Mary’s], I’m really seeing the effects of capitalism on our youth and they are almost feeling like there’s nothing good in this world. It’s really hard. So it’s important for us to remind each other of the good things. And that has nothing to do with rules and expectations and, you know, all of the -isms. It has everything to do with taking good care of each other and getting more into community-based healing and wellness.

It’s really important for us to tap in with ourselves and to have a community. If you don’t have one, find one in the best way. Not like discovering it or taking ownership, but just kind of finding your role in the community, making it a better place, and then building that sustainability within that community. That’s really where it’s going to be, because for me, I’m not native to San Francisco. I’m from Bakersfield in the Central Valley, and I came here and there’s a lot of privileges that I hold, especially having a home in Ingleside by City College. All of these things when I know people have been displaced from San Francisco, from their homes. But I still am active within the community in whatever way that I can be. I think that that’s really held me grounded and rooted here. It’s helped me to produce some roots here, and I’m so thankful for it.

Outside Interests

Question: What do you do for fun? Are there things that you really enjoy outside of teaching and school and work?

Ericca: I love to play basketball. I haven’t played basketball in a while, but I think it’s going to be time to really start picking that up again. I love to watch basketball. The WNBA semifinals are happening right now, and mine and my partner’s team, The Connecticut Sun, is playing the New York Liberty tonight. It’s game three. So we’re really excited about that. I also love music. Music has always been something that intergenerationally has brought me so much love and it connects me to a lot of my family who’s passed on. I actually deejay now. My name is Edword—with an ‘o’—G Robinson.

Question: Based on the old movie actor?

Ericca: Yeah. My grandpa, he would always give us little nicknames. He used to call me Buddy Hackett, too. My name in Spanish is Éricca. So my family calls me Eddie and he would call me Edward G. Robinson. When I was thinking about a [dj] name, I was like, I’m going to pick that one. That one’s really special to me. So yeah, the actor, which a lot of people don’t know.

I also try to garden in our backyard and soon want to get grounded enough to start creating more. I love to write. I love to draw. I love to build things. So hopefully I can get a little bit more grounded in school and work in life and I can start tapping into those things, too.