Twenty-five years ago, Cristina Parodi Araya brought her young son to a job interview at the San Diego County Office of Education.
The 3-year-old sat quietly drawing for hours while she completed a written interview for a migrant services aide position.
Now, it is the memory of her son that inspires Araya's work with parents to engage them in their student's education and success in college and career.
"My dream was to see my son get his college degree," Araya tells parents who attend her presentation titled How to Get to College. "That won't happen for me. But through your children I see my son graduate and receive his college degree over and over."
As a single mother in Argentina, Araya said her opportunities were limited. In 1991, she brought her son Francisco José Parodi, her suitcase, and her degree in Spanish to English translation to San Diego, where she had no family nearby and no support.
Araya got the position in Migrant Education and worked hard, often holding two jobs at a time to provide for her family. When her son began school, Araya assumed her son was progressing and succeeding, so it came as a surprise to learn he was behind in reading.
"I asked questions and realized how involved I needed to be. I became aware of parent organizations and other opportunities to be engaged," Araya said.
She served as the president of both the District English Learner Advisory Committee and English Learner Advisory Committee – also known as DELAC and ELAC – at her son's schools.
After nine years with Migrant Education, Araya joined the Learning and Leadership Services division to serve as the parent and family liaison. In that role, she provides professional learning to district liaisons, parents, and families.
"I was so fortunate to get both positions," she said. "My heart broke a little when I left Migrant Education, but I had to move forward for this wonderful opportunity. It's always been a passion of mine to work directly with parents."
Araya and her son together navigated a new country, embraced new jobs and new schools, and celebrated their successes.
In 2005, her son graduated from high school and began taking classes at Southwestern College. That December he was diagnosed with cancer.
Her SDCOE colleagues stepped up to help in a big way. They donated blood, and organized and gave to fundraisers for him.
"There are things you can never repay," Araya said. "Everyone here has my eternal gratitude."
In April 2007, Francisco José died at age 19.
"It was so hard to get the courage to face the parents in my workshops, and encourage them, after my son died," Araya said.
But it was a personal passion for Araya. She knew from experience how students can thrive with parent and family engagement, and how schools benefit from having parents who are not afraid to ask for help, services, and programs.
"The rewards I receive from this job are extraordinary," Araya said. "I'm not only representing the County Office in a good way, but I am also helping other parents learn how the school system works and to actively participate in their child's education."
She tells the parents who attend her workshops that every time they take her class, give their children the tools and encouragement they need, and then those students graduate from college, she considers it a gift.
"In a humble way, I say, 'There walks a student that I helped his or her parent,'" Araya said.