As principal of East Palo Alto Academy, Amika Guillaume leads the pursuit of our school’s mission: supporting our hardworking, primarily first-generation students on their journey to college. With more than a decade of experience promoting educational equity in East Palo Alto, Amika has worked with many EPAA families since their children were in elementary school. In this interview, she takes a few minutes out of her busy day to tell us how she found her way to EPAA and what drives her passion.
What inspired you to pursue work in education, specifically at a public charter school?
Because of many reasons - my parent’s military career, education reform experiments, the neighborhoods that we lived in, and my test scores - I was enrolled in over twenty-seven different schools all over the country. With 27 different schools and 27 different educational experiences under my belt, I developed a curiosity about how to create more inclusive learning environments for first-generation students like me.
What serves as your inspiration in your role as principal?
My parents, who had come to this country in pursuit of the American Dream, found that my school experiences did not meet their expectations. They would say, “They call this the land of opportunity, and this is what they are doing in your schools? Shameful!” My father would joke that Communist Czechoslovakia would never accept this “sorry excuse” for an education, while my mom would remark that the nuns in the jungles of the Philippines knew better than to teach like this. I often tell people that I became an educator because I didn’t want to let my parents down. They came too far to be disappointed.
"I wake up every morning determined...I believe with every fiber of my being that our students will be the ones to diversify the culture of power and disrupt the culture of poverty in all communities."
Why do first-generation students have a special place in your heart?
I specifically teach in communities with first-generation kids, who are trying to understand the education system of the USA, because it is where I feel most at home. When students miss school to help their parents at work or to watch younger siblings, I completely understand. When parents are flabbergasted by the complexities of getting into college, I can relate. As a first-generation, biracial daughter of a teen mom, the fact that I stand before my students as a graduate of UCLA and Harvard is nothing short of a miracle. But it shouldn’t be a miracle.
What makes your work at East Palo Alto Academy worthwhile?
I wake up every morning determined to continue improving supports for all EPAA students. This comes from my deep belief that the inspiration in the stories of first-generation students of color are what this country needs to hear. I believe with every fiber of my being that our students will be the ones to diversify the culture of power and disrupt the culture of poverty in all communities.
Support East Palo Alto Academy Foundation’s mission to build lives of choice and opportunity through education. Consider making a donation today.