Three-time alum works to help upcoming teachers better resemble students they will lead

Before college, Karina Figueroa-Ramirez had never been in a class led by a Latinx teacher.

When she became a teacher years later, many people assumed she either taught Spanish or kindergarten.

“What really made me think was when people would tell me I didn’t look like a teacher,” Figueroa-Ramirez said. “What does a teacher look like?”

Throughout California, education faces a major challenge: Teachers of the state’s K-12 students don’t reflect the state’s diversity. That means, like Figueroa-Ramirez, a child can go through school never seeing someone who looks like them at the front of the classroom.

Today, the three-time Sacramento State alumna is drawing on that experience at her alma mater, where she is the College of Education’s equity coordinator. Through her work, she plays a leading role in the College’s efforts to recruit, retain and graduate into the teaching profession first-generation, multi-cultural and multi-lingual students.

Figueroa-Ramirez’s primary job responsibility is advising students both within and outside the College of Education who might be considering teaching. When meeting with students, she works to learn and understand their academic and professional goals, so that she is better able to anticipate their questions and connect them to on- and off-campus resources.

Karina Figueroa-Ramirez’s work as the College of Education’s equity coordinator includes overseeing the College’s equity peer mentors, who in turn help support Sacramento State undergraduate students considering teaching as a profession. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

She also oversees the College’s educational equity peer mentors and is heavily involved in campus outreach efforts, such as establishing and maintaining “Future Teacher Clubs” at local high schools and community colleges.

“It’s a privilege to lead efforts in this capacity” she said. “I’m honored to have that opportunity to work with our students and guide them through their academic and professional journeys.”

In much of her work, Figueroa-Ramirez draws upon her own background as a first-generation college student and now a first-generation educator. She came to Sacramento State to study government, with a goal of working in policy. When one of her classmates suggested teaching, she couldn’t help but laugh.

“I said, ‘Me a teacher? You’re funny. No absolutely not,’ ” she said. “In retrospect, I think that was my reaction because I didn’t want to be vulnerable and I didn’t want to expose my insecurities in that setting, which were very obvious.

“I didn’t feel I had what it took to be a teacher. Growing up, I didn’t see teachers who represented my background, experiences and worldview.”

But others, including her father, continued to encourage her, as did a prominent staffer at the state Capitol, where she was a legislative intern, working on matters that included education bills. She started visiting schools and substitute teaching and eventually realized she was enjoying herself. Having earned her bachelor’s degree in 2005, she returned to Sacramento State for her credential and worked as a high school social science and history teacher. In 2012, she earned her master’s degree in bilingual and multicultural education.

Sacramento State was a welcoming community. Figueroa-Ramirez said her classes, faculty and fellow students helped validate, for the first time, experiences she had growing up as a Latina, including experiences such as microaggression and being ostracized.

The College of Education, with its emphasis on social justice, also challenged her to think differently about students. She learned to not define them by their deficits – for example, a “problem child” who inevitably will disrupt class – but instead by their potential.

“We work with students with a restorative lens,” she said. “Instead of judging students or treating them with a deficit way of thinking, we were trained to do the opposite, to see the best in students and how we may be agents of change in the classroom.”

In 2016, Figueroa-Ramirez returned to the University as an employee, and has spent much of the past three-plus years working to help ensure the next generation of teachers is more diverse and culturally competent.

Although it’s too soon to tell how well those efforts are paying off, some anecdotal evidence encourages her. The number of students graduating with a bilingual authorization has increased, and one education faculty member told her that he had never before seen as many Spanish-speaking students. In addition to Spanish-speakers, Figueroa-Ramirez also is working to increase the number of teaching candidates who earn a bilingual authorization in Hmong, a major need in California.

“To give voice to the voiceless, we need to have teachers who will work toward social justice, access and equity,” she said. “Research shows and points to the fact that students are more successful when they see themselves in their teachers. It’s such a powerful profession that provides access to the masses – time every day with students.”

Eleven Sacramento State alumni make annual ’40 Under 40′ list

Every year, the Sacramento Business Journal honors the “40 Under 40” – a group of young Sacramento professionals who are making their mark on the region. And every year, Sacramento State alumni make up a significant portion of the list.

This year is no exception: 11 Sacramento State alumni have been named to the 2019 “40 Under 40” list, a testament to the tremendous impact Hornet alums have throughout Sacramento and beyond. They and their fellow recipients will be honored formally at an event in November.

The full list was announced Sept. 30 on the Business Journal’s website. This year’s Hornets included on the “40 Under 40” roster are:

  • Maggie Bender ’11 MBA, president, Bender Insurance Solutions.
  • Tiffanie Berkhalter ’04 (Business Administration), VSP Ventures chief operating officer, VSP Global.
  • Jita Buno ’13 MBA, director, Supply Chain Management, UC Davis Health.
  • Matt Ceccato ’11 (Communication Studies), district director, Congressman Ami Bera.
  • Sarah Correa ’03 (Criminal Justice), corporate sales and marketing manager, Westervelt Ecological Services.
  • Jessica Cruz ’04 (Communication Studies – Media Communications), CEO, National Alliance on Mental Health in California.
  • Lindsey Goodwin MA ’10 (Government), vice president of public affairs, Randle Communications.
  • Joseph Hernandez ’16 MBA, director of client relations, Premier Healthcare Services.
  • Lorena Martinez ’07 (Accountancy), owner, The Colour Bar.
  • Chelsea Minor ’15 MBA, corporate director, Consumer and Public Affairs, Raley’s.
  • Amber Rosen ’06 (Communication Studies – Public Relations), founder and program director, Breakroom Fitness.

A 12th individual, attorney Adrian Carpenter, is not an alum but participated in Sacramento State’s Capital Fellows Program.

“These young professionals, through their hard work, talent and leadership, are helping drive Sacramento’s economy forward. Moreover, they’re making the region a better place to live by supporting worthy causes,” the Business Journal writes. “By way of example, they’re leading the way for future generations of business leaders.”

The strong presence of Sacramento State alumni on the list continues a trend. Last year, 12 alumni were included in the “40 Under 40.” Nine alums were recognized in 2017 and in 2016, and a record 12 Hornets made the list in 2015.

The full list can be found on the Sacramento Business Journal website. (subscription required).

Alum Cristina Mendonsa to co-host KFBK Morning News

The familiar voice of a Hornet will be returning to Sacramento airwaves soon.

Cristina Mendonsa ’96 (Government & Journalism), who spent 21 years as an news anchor for ABC Channel 10 before departing last summer when her contract was not renewed, will join radio station KFBK as its Morning News show co-host.

Mendonsa “brings name recognition and a reputation for award-winning news journalism” to the station, the Sacramento Bee reported Aug. 23.

In a 2008 article for Sac State Magazine, Mendonsa talked about having to work full time during college, and how doing so helped her learn to stay cool under pressure – an essential skill in the world of journalism.

“It was exciting. I was working in the business as a radio reporter while I was going to Sac State,” Mendonsa said. “I had (the late mayor) Joe Serna as one of my professors, so I would take notes at his lectures in the daytime, and in the afternoon I’d interview him on some city government issue, so it was kind of funny.”

Mendonsa begins her new job at KFBK on Aug. 27.