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Part of Western Governors University

January 14, 2022

Student Success

'I Want You to Go Further'

From El Salvador to America: How One Father’s Dream Inspired His Son’s Mission to Make Education the Great Equalizer

Like many families who immigrate to America, Ismar Vallecillos’ father had a dream for his five children: to provide opportunities that he knew they could never have in war-torn El Salvador. At just 8 years old, Vallecillos didn’t fully understand that dream then in 1983. But he knew in his gut that he would never go home again. 

“I remember being on that plane at night and seeing the city lights of El Salvador, and I had this very clear thought that I was never coming back,” he said. 

Francisco and Ismar Francisco Vallecillos (left) and his son Ismar Vallecillos, WGU's Northwest Regional Director

“They hadn't said much to me other that we were going to the States to reunite with Dad. That was all I knew. But I remember just having this clear impression that I was looking out at El Salvador for the last time.”

Vallecillos, now Northwest Regional Director for Western Governors University (WGU), recalls that journey from a lifetime ago and how his father, Francisco, came to America ahead of his family, with a mere $20 in his pocket.  

“He originally had no intentions of leaving El Salvador, but there was a very violent civil war going on in Central America. A lot of this was fought on Honduran soil as well as El Salvadorian soil and there was a movement to overthrow the government by a socialist backed regime,” Vallecillos said. “The quality of life and everything just declined back in that time. There were quite a few people who fled during those years of conflict, and my father had no employment.

Because they had visited Mesa, Arizona as part of a church organized temple excursion the prior year, Francisco realized he still possessed a passport and a valid visa. He knew in his heart this was an opportunity to help his family, but it required a heart-breaking decision: he had to leave his family behind because he didn’t have enough money to bring them.

“The trip cost less than $100, which was just enough to buy several bus passes. By the time he crossed the border, he had less than $20,” Vallecillos recalled. Then he paused, realizing as a grown man and a father himself now, just how little his dad possessed to make a better life for his entire family.

Francisco working in Mesa, Arizona in 1992

His father connected with his church, who put him in contact with other people who were from El Salvador and helped him network. Eventually, a group of good-hearted men helped to move the rest of his family to Mesa where their new life took flight. But with that new opportunity came further obstacles that Francisco was not expecting.

Although he had studied computer programming and had been working with IBM and computers in El Salvador, his training was not recognized in the States. With another child arriving in the year the family arrived, Francisco now had five kids and a wife to look after.

“He took whatever job was made available to him, which was with a tree trimming company,” Vallecillos said. “He worked so hard, and in time he decided that it was better if he started his own business. And that’s how he provided for all of us and is still providing for himself and my mom today.”

Vallecillos paused again in reflection.

Francisco Tree trimming in Mesa, Arizona 1991

“My father never went back to school for his computer programming. He didn't have the flexibility now that helps people balance an education while working full-time, which is why he always repeatedly told me how important it was for me to get my education—to use my mind to work,” Vallecillos said. “He felt he didn't have that opportunity once he was here in the States.”

Although grateful for the opportunity to improve his family’s circumstances, Vallecillos said his father’s limited English skills presented further obstacles.

“He didn’t have the right support to guide him where to go to try and maybe prove his skills and validate his certifications,” he said. “I think he found the opportunity to work and provide for his family kind of took precedence. Once he saw he was earning good money­ for us, he abandoned that other world of computers.”

That stability was the foundation for the rest of the family to pursue their own dreams. But if the challenge of speaking English and adjusting to a new way of life was a huge obstacle for Francisco, imagine what it was like for the rest of his family, including his 8-year-old little boy.

Vallecillos recalled his father telling them that this was their new life, their new everything.

“Everything seemed so different. I didn't speak the language, and I didn’t understand what people were saying. I still remember my first day in the ESL class repeating the colors I had learned,” he said. “I knew how to say brown, green, and yellow and that was such a big deal for me that I could say a couple of words!”

Vallecillos family in Mesa, Arizona. September 1985 From left to right: Luis, Francisco Jr., Ismar, Francisco Sr., Maggie, Larissa

Vallecillos spent the next couple of years in intensive English programs that could help bring him up to speed with his classmates. Although he could eventually speak and understand English fluently, his reading and writing skills were delayed, and his teachers didn’t seem to know how to help bridge that gap.

“Because I could speak and understand fluently, I naively thought I’d do well in school. But I struggled. I had low grades and didn't understand that speaking and writing were two different things. That reading and listening are two different things,” he said. “So, I made the connection early on that I wasn't a smart person and that my peers were, and that my problem with school was that I just didn't have the brains for schoolwork.”

That stigma followed him all the way to high school where he also suffered poor grades.

“My spelling was off. My grammar was off, and my comprehension was off. I couldn't answer quizzes well because I didn't understand everything I was reading,” he recalled.

The feelings of inadequacy ran deep.

“You know that feeling that you are less intelligent or capable really limits your outlook on life from an academic point of view. So, when it came time for my senior year, everybody was applying to colleges and talking about where they were getting accepted. I felt like I didn’t belong. Like it was their world, and it just wasn’t possible for me.”

Vallecillos knew he had to travel a different road, and for him, like his father, that road was manual labor. He knew how to make money.  

“I thought maybe I could build my own business like my father did, and that would be how I'd provide for my own family. I convinced myself that I didn’t need school. That was my mentality, so I didn't apply to college.”

Upon graduating high school, Vallecillos kept working and became a jack of almost any trade that he came across. Along with landscaping, he did tile work, plumbing and remodeling. He became a loan officer, a tour guide, a lifeguard, and a swim instructor. It was in the pool that he realized how good he was with people and how they reacted to him.

“I discovered that I could teach people and because of my own challenges, I could relate to the learner and teach in a way that they would understand,” he said. “I have a very empathetic nature. It’s not just about hearing myself talk. It’s about how would I receive it if I was the student. And I began to realize that I had a passion for teaching, which included teaching a 90-year-woman how to swim who had it on her bucket list before she died.”

Glendale Arizona. 1985. Left to right: Ismar, Francisco Sr., and Francisco Jr.

His connection and teaching abilities propelled Vallecillos to take a couple of courses at the local community college. After some assessment skills tests and further guidance helped bridge his gap of comprehension, the unthinkable happened: Vallecillos got straight A’s.

“I’m thinking that this is supposed to be harder than high school, but I'm getting straight A's here. I began to realize that I was capable and that there were some smarts in me,” he said. “And that’s when my self-confidence began to build.”

Light bulb after light bulb started to go off. What once seemed impossible, now seemed downright crystal clear.

“So, if I take notes on what's going to be on the test, then you’ll do well on the test. It all became a no brainer, right? I realized I can do this. It was a filter that I have been looking through. But when I got to college, I realized if I read this and I write it, I'm getting good grades,” he said. “My reading ability had caught up to my classmates. I just had to gain the self confidence that I could do it.”

In a word­­—college opened his eyes to his future, and that future was becoming a teacher. But the path to get there still wasn’t clear, and when he got married, like his father, his education took a backseat to working and providing. Four years into the marriage, he had two daughters.

“And I am realizing that I need more than just what I'm able to offer,” he said.

The turning moment happened when he became a loan officer. Vallecillos said he was so proud of himself because he had a professional office job and wasn't outside doing construction anymore. He told a friend about it and the possibility of more work with his brother in real estate.

“I remember he said to me, ‘That’s great, Ismar, but don't settle ever on that way of thinking.’ I remember thinking that was kind of a mean thing to say after I just told you that I’ve reached my goals. And then he said to me, ‘Go get your education.’

“That's all he said to me, and it bugged me he wasn't excited for me. But his words of don't settle—get your education—stayed. That unless I got my education, I was bound to continue to bounce around looking for opportunities, and none of them answered my calling to teach.”

Vallecillos enrolled at Arizona State University in the adult learner’s program, which took away his once monumental fear of taking the SAT’s and where he discovered how financial aid and other programs could help pave the road to his dream. But he still needed a good amount of money that his young family just didn’t have. So, he sold his condo, his car—everything—and moved in with his in-laws, all so he could stay on course in getting his teaching degree.

Vallecillos majored in multicultural multilingual education, which was specifically geared to teaching people like himself. It was a full circle moment and one of many to come.

“It’s for kids like myself, who are coming here and who need to do well. They need someone to connect with them, especially with their limited English,” he said. “It was so great because I could understand them. Like I knew what they were thinking, and how they were looking at the world.”

Vallecillos worked with inner-city school kids and continued his path in education, which eventually landed him in his current role at WGU.

“I have traveled a lot, and I have seen what education does and how hard it is in some places to get it. I have made that my personal mission—to open doors for people who are looking for these kinds of opportunities,” he said. “I wonder how many Ismars are out there who think they have to give everything up or don't want to give everything up, and that's why they don't go to school.  There are other paths out there like WGU that create those opportunities.”

Opportunities that his father never had because his dream for his family took precedence.

Although the two valued the same dream, Vallecillos recalled one time when he and his father got into a heated argument. It was one of those hot summer days in Arizona, where Vallecillos was tired and just didn’t want to be helping his dad on his free time, again.

“I remember telling him that I didn’t want to be a landscaper or take over his company. I thought that it would cut him, but it didn’t,” he recalled, holding back tears. “He just sat there with this half smirk on his face, and he simply said, ‘I don’t want you to do this. I want you to go further.”

Vallecillos credits his father’s tenacity and lifelong commitment to hard work with helping him navigate his own tough times.

“My father taught me that you don't quit when you're tired. You quit when the work is done. My goal in life is to go as far career-wise as I can to make up for what my father gave up.”

Ismar's father's hands

And yes, Vallecillos has told his father that many times. In fact, he recently asked his father to create a plaster of his handprints.

“They are in my office, so I can look at how those hands made everything possible for us.”

Such possibilities like traveling back to El Salvador, where Vallecillos thought he would never return. He’s returned three times now for work where he’s been able to show his fellow El Salvadorans that they, too, can go much further.

Just like his father taught him.

By Courtney Dunham, Communications and Public Relations Manager for Northwest Operations. For media or other inquires, please contact Courtney at 206.388.8926 or courtney.dunham@wgu.edu

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