ALUMNI SCHOLARSHIP PROFILE:

Dina Saavedra walked into a special education classroom, and a love story began

Dina Saavedra in class

Dina Saavedra teaches special education at Noble Elementary in northeast Bakersfield.

By CHRISTINE BEDELL
Alumni Engagement Specialist
cbedell1@csub.edu

Dina Saavedra was scared when she was assigned to write about West High School’s special education class for the campus yearbook. She’d heard in junior high that special ed kids were separated from other students because they could be aggressive.

But when Saavedra visited the class, she immediately fell in love with the kids.

“They were just wonderful,” she said, describing how one boy plopped down next to her on a couch and started reading a book.

“It’s like they knew me, they weren’t scared of me. They were very accepting, and it just reflected how wrong I was.”

The experience changed not only Saavedra’s perceptions but her life. It piqued an interest in becoming a special education teacher, and a decade later she is one.

Saavedra teaching land forms

After completing a unit on land forms, Saavedra made a huge batch of Play-Doh and had students show her what they learned by building their own land forms. 

Saavedra teaches 11 first-, second- and third-graders with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities at Noble Elementary in northeast Bakersfield. She’s teaching on a temporary credential while earning two permanent credentials and a master’s degree in special education at CSUB.

Saavedra loves both the innocent, affectionate nature of her students and the camaraderie she sees among special education teachers.

“I really try to imitate that in my classroom,” Saavedra said, “having teamwork, having communication, and just being there for the kids.”

GETTING HER START

Saavedra jumped into special education immediately after high school, working as an instructional aide at Valley Achievement Center while taking general education courses at CSUB. It was her one-on-one work with a 3-year-old boy there that permanently sold Saavedra on a special education career.

The boy was not potty-trained. He could only communicate through pictures. And he threw temper tantrums that sometimes lasted three to four hours.

One year into Saavedra’s work with the boy, he said “car” to his mother for the first time as they were heading home from school. Saavedra burst into tears when she heard about it “because we had been working on this for an entire year.”

A few months after that, the boy started using the toilet. His behavior improved and he learned to use more words.

“Just watching those little steps happen, those little goals being accomplished, drove me to not give up, to keep trying,” she said.

Saavedra entered CSUB’s Child, Adolescent and Family Studies program. As a first-generation student, college was a challenge.

She had no college fund.  She didn’t know all the application deadlines. She didn’t have mentors who could help her with her homework.

By joining a sorority, reaching out to counselors and making friends, Saavedra navigated the ways of CSUB – including while pregnant with her first child -- and earned her bachelor’s degree in 2014.

“She had to experience everything on her own,” said Saavedra’s sister, Zithry Vasquez. “I remember her saying, ‘I don’t know how to get this done, I don’t know where to get that done.’ She just really went out there and figured it out.”

At a campus career fair, Saavedra learned about the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, which provides in-home therapy for kids with autism.

In her year at CARD, Saavedra worked with children on fine and gross motor skills, speech and language development and academics.  

One of her students also attended Chavez Elementary, and a teacher there who was impressed by her creativity and passion for children encouraged her to get her credential and teach in her own classroom.

“She was so great, and you could tell she loved what she did,” said the teacher, Alyce Nichols. “She encouraged you to do better.”

Dina Saavedra student

“Making predictions are much more fun when we are able to test them and see the results with our own eyes,” Saavedra said. “Here we learned about erosion. We put a Skittle candy in a cup of water and watched the erosion of the color.”

Saavedra first took credential classes at National University and then enrolled at CSUB in 2017. She’s working on a double credential so she can teach both mildly and moderately disabled students.

Saavedra has also been growing a family. She and her husband, Michael, a supervisor at a fertilizer company,  have been married for seven years. They have a 7-year-old son, Adam, and a 3-year-old son, Damian.

Saavedra Family

Saavedra with her husband, Michael, and sons, Damian and Adam.

TEACHERS AS ROLE MODELS

Teachers have played pivotal roles in Saavedra’s life.

There was Mrs. Corral, the fifth-grade teacher who gave her someone to talk to during lunch or after school when her parents separated.

There was Mrs. Blackburn, the junior high independent studies teacher who checked in on her and her younger sister when their parents were taking their brother, Neftaly, down to UCLA for leukemia treatments.

And there was Mr. Ogilvie, the high school teacher who brought Saavedra her homework and organized a group of students to come visit her while she was recovering from a major car accident her senior year.

“These teachers inspired me to keep going even though at times it felt my goal was further than closer,” Saavedra wrote in her scholarship application. “Their positive influence has motivated me to join them in wanting to help children who might be on the verge of giving up.”

Saavedra also gives credit to her parents, both of whom are from Mexico and encouraged their kids to go further in life academically than they did.

Her father, a pastor, has just an elementary school education; her mother’s schooling stopped after high school.

“My father always told us, ‘You can do better than this. You can do better than this. You just need to try hard,’” she remembered.

They did. Zithry also graduated from CSUB and is an assisted living activities coordinator; Neftaly is a student at Taft College.

“She definitely set the bar for my brother and I,” Zithry said. “It was like, ‘She’s doing it, now we have to do it.”

OUT OF HER OWN POCKET

Saavedra says her scholarship money will not only help her family but her classroom. She spends her own money on school supplies.

She buys lots of books – for her students and herself -- as well as manipulatives that foster hands-on learning.

Saavedra also writes, illustrates and publishes “social stories” that address problems in class. When one little girl acted out physically, Saavedra wrote a social story about the proper uses of hands in school.

“What I get for my classroom (from the school district) is the basics,” Saavedra said. “Everything else, I have to bring out of my own pocket.”

Saavedra teaching with MMs

Saavedra says learning how to divide 100 into groups of 10 using M&Ms makes learning fun and yummy. 

Candice Peña, who teaches special ed at College Heights Elementary, says Saavedra also spends countless hours of her own time preparing lessons and tailoring instruction to individual students. And she shares what she does with her fellow teachers.

“She’s going to be a great veteran teacher, a great mentor to teachers coming in,” Peña said. “She’s going to go very far.”



Open Quote
"Just watching those little steps happen, those little goals being accomplished, drove me to not give up, to keep trying." Close Quote
Dina Saavedra

CSUB ALUMNI SCHOLARSHIP

Every year, the CSUB Alumni Association awards scholarships to CSUB graduates pursuing their graduate degree on campus.

For the 2019-2020 academic year we have awarded three scholarships totaling $7,000, and we will be profiling all of them:

Dina Saavedra: $3,000

Denisse Silva: $2,000

Karen Vazquez: $2,000

Check out our scholarship page for more information.