Mateo Magdaleno is an internationally known community leader and speaker. He currently serves as Chief Education Officer for the IDQ Group Inc., providing innovative strategies to Fortune 500 corporations, non-profit organizations, government agencies, universities, and school districts committed to building a stronger future by combatting the illiteracy epidemic, reducing the high school dropout rate, and increasing college enrollment and retention among underserved students. Brother Mateo earned a bachelor’s degree in corporate communication and public affairs from Southern Methodist University. He resides in Dallas, where he serves as caregiver for his elderly mother, Maria, and is in the process of adopting his older sister, Sylvia, who is gifted with Down Syndrome.

Life’s challenges can seem overwhelming at times. For lower income minority students, the challenge of graduating high school or college can seem impossible when they lack family support, funding, or even basic food and shelter. The education achievement gap between minority students and their white peers has been a topic of conversation for decades. And while progress has been made in reducing the gap, there is more to be done to support at-risk students.

I’m delighted to tap Mateo Magdaleno for this conversation because he brings both personal experience and professional expertise to this discussion. I’ve heard you say, Mateo, that you find yourself inspired as you encourage students around the globe. How does that happen?

Students have taught me so much as I’ve traveled from China to Colombia to Mexico to, Honduras and to even here in the US. One student gathering offers an unforgettable example. I asked to speak to students who are gifted with special needs (my older sister is gifted with Down Syndrome). The room was filled with around 60 students, all of them facing different challenges. Some were in wheelchairs, some were deaf, and some just had different learning styles. I told these young people, “Thank you for inspiring me to be better.”

One young lady who was deaf raised her hand and had a confused look on her face. She asked, “Sir, how do we inspire you? Look at us. Look around. We’re the kids that nobody ever wants to have lunch with. Look at us, we’re the unwanted at the school. What do you mean kids like me inspire you?” She was telling me this in sign language and an interpreter was translating for me. It was one of those moments that change your life. I replied, “You inspire me because you work with what you have.”

Sometimes we are so focused on what we don’t have. We focus on “I didn’t have a dad,” or “I’m poor,” or whatever our challenge might be. But those students were working with what they had rather than focusing on what they didn’t have. If a boy didn’t have one leg, he worked with his good leg. If that young lady couldn’t speak with her voice, she worked it with her hands. They were working it!

After that exchange, other students started signing to me. The interpreter told me they were saying, “Work it, baby. Work it, baby.” What a lesson for all of us! You’ve got to learn how to work it, baby. You’ve got to work with what you have left. Whatever it is.

What advice can you give parents about encouraging a student challenged by obstacles in their educational journey that seem overwhelming? How can parents help a child who feels really discouraged?

Step one, which can begin long before challenges arise, is to surround your son or daughter with positive role models, including yourself. Whether they show it or not, you are their greatest role model. If parents come from a broken family system, they can stop that cycle. My own mother is a prime example.

When I went back to college, my mother said, “Oh, you are not leaving me behind, mijo. I’m going right there with you and I’m going to go get my education.” She was 62 years old when she decided to learn to read and write! She was illiterate because of her circumstances, but she didn’t let it stop her. Parents, you are your children’s first leader. You are a walking, living, testimony of what God is able to do.

A second step is to pray over your child and speak positive words. You may have had a really difficult day, but your kids may have had a tough day also. When we engage with children late in the day, we can pray, “God, I cast all of my worries on you. I surrender my worries to you because my child matters, my words matter.”

Mateo, your own life story is an encouragement to many students. Would you share some of that story with our readers?

Absolutely. As the youngest of ten and an emigrant to this amazing country called America, I was the only member of my family to graduate high school. There were huge challenges for us as a family and as students. We often lived under a bridge during my elementary school years, because my mother was a victim of domestic violence and we didn’t have anywhere else to sleep.

While my mother was pregnant with my older sister Sylvia, my father beat my mother so badly that it damaged my sister’s brain, and she was born with severe mental damage. Before I was born, my mother contemplated not carrying me to term because she could barely able to afford to raise the nine other children. I was one of those whom society would consider a “mistake,” but I love what God does with mistakes! He turns them into miracles.

I share my story in hope that I can encourage young people who face obstacles in life and in school. Since I was very young, I always knew that I was different; I didn’t fit in in school I didn’t fit anywhere. I didn’t fit in sometimes even at church. I started asking, “God, why can’t I fit in? Why was I born into a dysfunctional family, Lord? Change my situation!” God answered me so clearly: “I won’t change your circumstances because I want your circumstances to change you.”

I had a choice to either let my situation, my past, make me a bitter person or a better person. And I began to lean on the word of God. During high school, I stayed focused by remembering who God said I was! I am more than a conqueror. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Every week I made a conscious decision to learn a verse from the Bible that spoke to my identity. I learned to trust more in what God said about me than what others said.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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