ALUMNI DONOR SPOTLIGHT: Rita Esquivel
OLLU shaped a giant in bilingual education
The U.S. Secretary of Education was on the phone, asking Rita Esquivel if she would become director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs. At the time, Rita was the assistant superintendent for education in California’s Santa Monica-Malibu Unified Independent School District, a position that placed her in charge of the district’s bilingual programs.
She liked her job and didn’t want to relocate to Washington, D.C. But before declining the offer, Rita flew home to San Antonio to discuss it with a mentor and good friend, Sr. Frances Jerome, a professor at Our Lady of the Lake College.
“She said I had to take it,” recalls Rita (BA Sociology 1953, MEd 1960). “It was something I needed to do.”
On the advice of a nun, Rita in 1989 became the first Latina director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Affairs. “My life has been very much influenced by Our Lady of the Lake,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of money. But there will be a little bit for the school in my will when I die.”
More than 20 years after that appointment, Rita is a recognized giant in the field of bilingual education. With a budget of $255 million in the Department of Education, Rita funded model bilingual projects for schools to follow and helped the Secretary of Education set policies for students with limited English proficiency.
In addition, Rita helped expand the development of bilingual education programs. According to an issue of Notable Hispanic American women, “Esquivel also played a major role in establishing a research symposium for practitioners in the educational field and set policy on a national level.” She considers that her greatest accomplishment.
Another OLLU grad, Maria Hernandez Ferrier, followed Rita as director of the Office of Bilingual Education. After leaving Washington, D.C., Rita returned to the school district in Santa Monica and resumed a distinguished career. Today, she works at Loyola Marymount, training future teachers in the education department.
Hispanic Business Magazine once named her one of the 100 most influential Hispanics in America. In 1991, OLLU awarded her an honorary Doctor of Letters.
Rita was born in San Antonio, the oldest daughter of a self-employed radio repairman and a homemaker. She wanted to become a lawyer. Her father wanted her to pursue social work. In 1949, Rita enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake, then a mostly Anglo college.
“I could speak Spanish,” she says. “But I didn’t learn how to read and write Spanish until my freshman year at Our Lady of the Lake. I learned under a wonderful instructor, Sister Genevieve. She was tough on me but I’m glad she was tough on me. I was the only native speaker.”
Two years after graduating in 1953, Rita took her first job as an elementary school teacher. After moving to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in 1963, she held a number of positions, including teacher, counselor, principal, coordinator of community relations and assistant superintendent.
“There is a greater acceptance of bilingual education than when I first started,” Rita says. “Back then it was looked upon as a remedial class for children. Now some of the best schools in the Los Angeles area, where I am, have bilingual education programs. At Edison Elementary, there is a waiting list of English speaking children, chomping at the bit, trying to get in.”
Rita remains passionate about her alma mater and has given regularly to the University. She credits Sr. Jerome -- now deceased -- for changing her life and offering great counsel. On the advice of the Sister, Rita arrived in Washington, D.C. and looked up a Lake graduate, Lora Ann Quinonez, CDP.
“I hired her to be one of my speech writers,” Rita says. “She was by my side the entire time. There was not a speech I gave that Lora Ann did not write for me. The school had a tremendous influence on me.”