UI College of Education grad aims to improve the lives of immigrant children

Ismenia Castelan recalls that when she arrived at the University of Iowa, she felt out of place and somewhat insignificant. While other first-year students seemed to quickly make friends and find their place on campus, Castelan worried that she was too timid and soft-spoken to make much of an impact.

But as a first-generation college student, Ismenia was determined to succeed—not only for herself, but also for her parents who taught her the importance of higher education. So, she decided not to let her natural shyness hold her back, and instead she found her voice, first as an advocate for her own education and then as an advocate for other Latinas also struggling to find their voice. Castelan graduates from the UI in December 2017.

“Ismenia is a serious, determined, hard-working student who doesn’t draw attention to herself or her success,” says Carolyn Colvin, a UI College of Education professor who worked with Castelan to provide literacy instruction to immigrant families in the West Liberty, Iowa, school district. “She is someone who I believe has enormous potential. Despite her quiet nature, she has found her voice, and she is actively working to refine and amplify the important messages she has to offer.”

It took time for Castelan to emerge from her shell, but she says the UI’s culturally diverse campus helped her take those first steps by providing her with opportunities to test and improve her leadership skills in small, supportive environments. She says her experience participating in the annual Walk It Out Multicultural Fashion Show during her second semester at the UI showed her that there was a place for her on campus after all.

Ismenia Castelan student teaching

“I was really proud of myself for putting myself in that situation and for making it work and having fun with it,” says Castelan, who is from Muscatine, Iowa. “That started everything for me. That made me feel more confident about participating in more things on campus and about interacting with different people.”

For the next fashion show, Castelan chose to walk the runway dressed in clothes from South Asia and discovered a new personal interest. Her fascination with South Asian culture led her to apply for a study and travel scholarship for the UI’s three-week India Winterim, an intensive, field-based program that allows students to challenge themselves intellectually while experiencing India’s diverse culture and geography.

During her visit to India last winter, Castelan, who previously had only traveled to Mexico to visit relatives, was able to volunteer in a school for mentally and physically disabled children. There, she helped students take photos of their peers in various modes of activity—throwing a ball, running, or playing—and posted the photos with the corresponding verb on walls around the school to help the children learn new words. Castelan was enchanted by the people she met, as well as their rich and vibrant culture.

“I always wanted to study abroad, but I was never sure it would ever happen,” says Castelan. “The experience helped me branch out even more. Nearly a year later, I’m still friends with people I met in India.”

During her time at Iowa, Castelan also fostered important friendships with other Latinas and joined the sorority Lamda Theta Nu, one of a few Latina-focused Greek organizations in the nation. As part of her sorority work, Castelan helped organize an annual youth conference to encourage local Latina middle school students to pursue advanced degrees. The one-day conference typically draws 35 to 40 participants, she says.

“I was an ESL student from kindergarten to third grade, and I loved my ESL teachers. With them, I always felt like I was in a safe place. I want to work with ESL students. I want to give them that same kind of security and confidence.”

Ismenia Castelan

Isemenia Castelan student teaching


Besides volunteer and social activities, Castelan has also remained focused on her academic goals. Although she started out as a psychology major, Castelan says that after taking a child-development course, she realized that teaching was her ideal career. When she was a young child, Castelan participated in English as a second language (ESL) classes, an experience that helped her master English and exposed her to teachers who had a lasting impact on her.

“I was an ESL student from kindergarten to third grade, and I loved my ESL teachers,” says Castelan. “With them, I always felt like I was in a safe place. I want to work with ESL students. I want to give them that same kind of security and confidence.”

Castelan credits her professors in the College of Education with helping her reach her goal of becoming an elementary teacher. Not only did she get to work on a graduate-level literacy project with Colvin, but she says she has benefited from the college’s extensive network of education professionals—in Iowa and beyond.

“I have had so many opportunities to learn and grow,” says Castelan. “I’ve always felt supported, and I know that the professors are very focused on making us the very best educators we can be.”

As Castelan prepares to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education with an Added ESL Endorsement and to begin work as a substitute teacher in Columbus Junction, Iowa, she says she is proud of her accomplishments but also of the fact that she kept her promise to her parents and got a four-year degree.

“My parents have always stressed that education is important,” says Castelan. “They have always supported me and helped me in whatever way they could, and for that I am very grateful.”

Experience fall 2017 graduates’ inspirational stories.