Feeling supported as a working student in the Mount Holyoke master's program
“It doesn’t matter where you come from and all the obstacles that come your way. You can do it. With the right people and keeping yourself focused, you can achieve anything.”
When Emely Santiago interviewed for the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Mount Holyoke to hone her skills as an ESL teacher, she felt like she had found just the right environment to move her goals forward.
“They really respected where I came from,” she said. “And though I’m an English learner myself, they didn’t judge me.”
That understanding has been the backbone of Santiago’s time at Mount Holyoke, where the native Spanish speaker — who last fall received Holyoke Public Schools’ Excellence in Language Instruction Award — is a part of the Urban Teacher Pathways program through Mount Holyoke’s Professional and Graduate Education program. The Urban Teacher Pathways program is a partnership between Mount Holyoke College and Holyoke Public Schools and offers educators a chance to pursue a master’s degree at a minimal cost while they continue to work.
“The guidance is the highlight of Mount Holyoke. Every time I have questions, they explain things step by step. They’re very nice and patient. They help you get what you need.”
For Santiago — who started the MAT in 2020 and has been teaching K–3 ESL at Morgan School Elementary in South Holyoke for nearly five years — the opportunity to pursue a master’s degree is something she never could have imagined when she first started teaching in Massachusetts. Although she was born in the state, she spent most of her life in Puerto Rico and taught English there for eight years. Knowing Puerto Rico had a shortage of English speakers — and knowing English herself — Santiago felt teaching was a natural fit.
But after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, she moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, where her brother had settled. And while the surrounding Spanish-speaking population comforted Santiago — “It felt like I was almost home,” she said — she was overwhelmed with having to adjust to a new system in a different environment.
That firsthand knowledge now guides Santiago’s instincts as an ESL teacher, where her top priorities are to advocate for her students and be a resource for families navigating unfamiliar systems. “When I first started here, I kind of felt a little bit lost,” she said. “I do relate to my students. … I want to be that teacher that they can turn to and ask for help if they need it.”
The support Santiago has received as a working student at Mount Holyoke — not to mention parent of three children — has also reinforced the kinds of sensibilities she wants to provide as a teacher. “The guidance is the highlight of Mount Holyoke,” she said. “Every time I have questions, they explain things step by step. They’re very nice and patient. They help you get what you need. They make you feel comfortable.”
That’s not to say balancing work, school and parenthood has been easy, she admitted. But Mount Holyoke’s flexibility, understanding and willingness to work with students have made the process manageable for Santiago. She credits program supervisor Ruth Hornsby, who has been like her cheerleader, and Holly Graham with helping her stay focused and motivated. Graham’s feedback and energy have especially been inspiring for Santiago. “She’s like, ‘You got this. You’re wonderful,’” Santiago said. “I love her.”
And now, with a Massachusetts state teaching license under her belt and the techniques, methods and experiences she’s gathered from the classes she’s taken at Mount Holyoke, Santiago is excited to create a model classroom for her students. Her top criteria: “Creating a safe environment for students to be able to take risks without anyone judging them,” she said. “Noticing and determining what the students actually need to be successful — for example, what their strengths and struggles are and moving on from there.”
And as for anyone else considering the Mount Holyoke MAT — who may also be juggling competing priorities — Santiago is quick to dish out advice. “It doesn’t matter where you come from and all the obstacles that come your way. You can do it,” she said. “With the right people and keeping yourself focused, you can achieve anything.”