HOSCHTON — Sergio Parra’s love for teaching is evident from the moment he sets foot in his classroom and begins the day’s lesson.
His students’ faces light up when he enters the room, and the smile on his face while he’s explaining how to conjugate verbs in Spanish or when he asks students to answer a question reveals how much he cares for his classes.
“I have a passion for schools and what they’re doing to try to improve education,” he said. “Every student in this school is a student of mine ,and I care about all of them.”
But Parra took a brief step out of the classroom recently when the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute invited him to spend a week in Washington with other Hispanic leaders from across the country.
Originally from Colombia in South America, Parra came to the United States with his wife in 1993 to pursue an advanced degree. He earned his master’s degree — the first in his family to do so — and then became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
But his pursuit of higher education didn’t stop there.
He took a job as a middle school Spanish teacher at Osborne Middle School in Hoschton and is now enrolled in a doctorate program through Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla.
“But once I applied, I thought, ‘How am I going to pay for this?’” Parra said. “It’s hard to find scholarships for Ph.D. programs.”
He found a fellowship through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and after a rigorous application process and an initial e-mail saying he hadn’t been chosen, he received another e-mail notifying him that he was one of 140 people who did receive the fellowship.
“I was really excited and I was thankful,” he said. “And then I received more good news. I was one of three Ph.D. students chosen to come to Washington, D.C. to experience a week of events as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.”
Parra wasn’t sure at first if he would make the trip to the nation’s capital.
“I wasn’t sure about going because it was a full week away from my students. That’s a lot of time to be away,” he explained. “But (Principal John) Campbell said I should go. The administration really supported me on this.”
During his trip to Washington, Parra had the opportunity to meet other notable Latinos making a difference in their communities and even met some of the nation’s leaders: Sonia Sotomayor, the nation’s first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and even President Barack Obama.
“He’s really aware of Gwinnett County and what we’re doing in our schools,” Parra said of Duncan. “We think that in Washington, they’re not aware of what’s going on in the rest of the states. But they’re sincere in their efforts to make America the best. Arne Duncan — he’s eager to listen to people and has great support for the Latino community.”
Parra’s fellowship gives him $5,000 to use toward his education, along with a new laptop and software while he’s in school.
When he finishes his degree in about three and a half years, he plans to be right where he is now — teaching in the classroom and telling students how important it is for them to follow their dreams.
“Whatever you dream, you can do it. And as an immigrant from Colombia, I can really say this is a land of opportunity,” he said. “This is a big honor, but my passion is being in the classroom. I love what I’m doing.”