Lily Eskelsen went from working in a school cafeteria to becoming a top leader at the nation’s largest advocacy group for public education.
She is currently the vice president of the National Education Association and is gearing up to compete for the NEA’s president seat. She will announce her candidacy for president at the group’s annual convention, which will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, from June 26–July 6.
If she is elected president by the NEA’s 3.2 million members, she will become the organization’s first Latina president. That position would also give her an even more powerful voice to advocate for Latino students.
Lily Eskelsen’s story of how she got to the NEA is filled with stories of people, especially of former students, who made an impact in her life. She recently shared her story with VOXXI.
She began by speaking about her upbringing. Her maternal grandfather is from Nicaragua, her mother is from Panama and her father served in the U.S. Army. Growing up in a military family, Eskelsen and her five siblings moved every two to three years until her father retired and they moved to Utah.
“When people ask me, ‘Where did you grow up?’ I say alphabetically or chronologically?” she said laughing.
Eskelsen’s career as an educator began when she worked as a “lunch lady” for a school cafeteria. She took that job right after graduating from high school and getting married to Ruel, who passed away in 2011 and with whom she had two sons.
Eskelsen worked in the school cafeteria for a few months before becoming an aide for a kindergarten teacher at the school. She recalled playing her guitar and singing songs with the students. A year later, when she was about to turn 20 years old, she was encouraged by the kindergarten teacher to go to college and become a teacher herself.
“That was the first time in my life an adult told me I should go to college,” she told VOXXI.
Eskelsen’s parents never went to college. In fact, her mother finished high school, but her father never completed high school. For her parents, college wasn’t something they thought of for their children.
“It wasn’t that they were against it,” Eskelsen explained. “It just wasn’t part of their history, it wasn’t part of their family.”
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