ESL Instructor and Department Chair
Sylvia Ramirez’s passion for teaching is evident in her sweet demeanor, radiant smile and warm words. Sylvia, who began her career in the English as a Second Language Program at MiraCosta College nearly 40 years ago, and became a full-time professor in 1992, exclaims “teaching is the best job in the world.”
Sylvia’s sincere advice to students is to “follow your dreams and believe in yourself,” advice she has been following since beginning her educational journey at MiraCosta College in the late 1970s and earning her associate’s degree. Today, Sylvia holds a bachelor’s degree in behavioral science and a Master's in Education. Her hard work and belief in the power of education was also recently recognized when on March 8, 2011, she received the 2011 Hayward Award for Excellence in Education.
Coming from a family of teachers, Sylvia was always a bright student. In 1962, she started at San Diego State University on a nursing scholarship. A year and a half later, she realized that a career in nursing was not in her future, and so set her sights in a different direction, beginning an unforgettable journey that she has never regretted.
In 1964, despite encouragement from her professors, a determined Sylvia left the nursing program, her college credits and her scholarship behind. With a heart filled with optimism, she hopped on a bus bound for Texas to follow, and later marry, the man she loved, Raymond Ramirez. Together, the newlyweds took off on an adventure in love and learning that set a new direction she has followed for the past 47 years.
Raymond and Sylvia traveled to Spain in pursuit of Raymond’s dream of studying under well-known flamenco guitarist, Diego del Gastor. Raymond and Sylvia settled in the ancient city of Moron de la Frontera, an isolated village near Seville. Sylvia remembers, “The people were very poor. No one spoke a word of English there.”
Amidst a whitewashed landscape dotted with the crumbling ruins of medieval castles and palaces that were destroyed by French troops in 1812, Sylvia learned to speak beautiful Spanish. “I spent every day with the older women who went shopping. They taught me the language. They were very poor, but it was an incredible culture of gypsies.”
Surrounded by ruins, wild flower gardens, palm trees and acacias, Sylvia and her husband spent the next four years in Moron de la Frontera, while he studied the Spanish guitar and she learned the language. Upon their return to San Diego, Raymond started teaching Spanish, guitar and ESL at MiraCosta College in addition to attending classes. Meanwhile, Sylvia was hired as Raymond’s instructional aide in ESL, and by 1976 she received her teaching credential and began teaching in the ESL noncredit program. Settled in her new job, Sylvia thought this was the end of her educational pursuits. However, MiraCosta College adopted a policy requiring its instructors to hold Master’s degrees and so Sylvia was faced with a pivotal decision. She had five young children at home, and because of the time and energy involved in furthering her education, Sylvia remembers that she “was ready to quit. I just thought I couldn’t do it.” But, her boss and mentor, Shar Jorgenson, wasn’t going to give up on her. Shar got tough and motivated her to gain a higher education, and now a grateful Sylvia says, “Having a mentor is so important. They give you lots of opportunities.”
Thus Sylvia, at age 35, began to pursue a new goal. She returned to school and earned her associate’s degree from MiraCosta College. Later, she received her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science graduating as valedictorian, and then received a Master in Education. With three degrees in hand, Sylvia resumed teaching ESL to her beloved students, and in 1992 became a full professor. Reflecting on those days, Sylvia says, “Sometimes education seems like the hardest route, but stick with it. It was the most difficult and best decision I ever made.”
Not surprisingly, Sylvia received the 2011 Hayward Award for Excellence in Education. The award is given annually to four teachers statewide who “have a track record of excellence in both teaching and in professional activities and have demonstrated commitment to their students, profession and college.”
Sylvia now spends her workdays encouraging students to chase their own dreams, and many have done just that. One such student is Alfredo Martinez-Morales, who went on to earn his Doctorate in Electrical Engineering at UC Riverside and is now director of the Southern California Research Initiative for Solar Energy at the university. Says Alfredo, “If I look back at the teachers I encountered in my academic career, there are two or three who made the largest impact and Ms. Ramirez was one of them. The award is richly deserved.”
Judging by her success and the remarkable success of her students, Sylvia was right. “Follow your dreams and believe in yourself…education changes your life.”