A dozen preschoolers puff into plastic wands, shrieking as soap bubbles kite across the classroom. Sylvia Guzman, 29, sits cross-legged on the floor, next to a poster showing ways to calm down (put hand on tummy, take deep breaths). She reads aloud in Spanish: “There are three amigos.” She points to the book. The children flock around. She turns the page. “Four armadillos. How many armadillos? Let’s count them.” They count together—“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro”—as one boy stomps errant bubbles. “Look. Five cows,” she says. “What does a cow say?” Everyone moos in unison.

Guzman, a Distance Degree Program student at Washington State University, has worked at Early Head Start in Mount Vernon for four years. “I get paid to play all day,” she says. “I never want to go back to the fields. And I’m not. Never.” The fields are the farms of California, Oregon, and Washington where she picked oranges, grapes, lemons, olives, blueberries, cucumbers, apples, and strawberries.

Sylvia Guzman with young readers
Fed up with fieldwork, Sylvia Guzman crossed the street to a child-care center and volunteered her time. Today, she is working toward a degree in bilingual education through the Distance Degree program. (Photo Brian Maki)

Sylvia started picking in central California at 13. She picked on weekends during the school year and all summer to help her parents, immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico. “When my parents told me it was time to get another bin, I’d start crying,” she says. Her mother, Silviana, still works in the fields. Her father, Guadalupe, died in 2000.

At 18, Sylvia married Cornelio, a fellow Oaxacan she met in the fields. They became migrant workers, following the harvest up through Oregon and Washington, where their daughter, Angelica Avila, was born. (Karina came two years later, then Diego, who’s now 4.)

The family lived in labor camps, in their cargo van, and in a livestock barn where they boiled water to shower in a plywood-covered feeding pen. One boss let them sleep in a corner of his rat-infested warehouse. “I was pregnant, and I would cry because I did not want to stay there,” Sylvia says. “I’m terrified of rats. In Mexico one night I felt something scratching on the blankets and I told my husband, ‘Honey I think there’s a rat on top of us.’ He told me, ‘No, it’s not. Go to sleep.’ Then he felt it and he flung off the blankets. And the rats in Mexico…” She holds her hands a foot apart.

In 2001, Sylvia, Cornelio, and their two young children were sharing a two-bedroom house with about 20 people in Burlington, Washington. Fed up with fieldwork, she walked across the street to a child-care center. “I asked for a job. I told the woman that I’d come here every day for a week and work for free.” She got the job, her first job in child care.

She enrolled at Skagit Valley College, and graduated two years later with an associate’s degree. She wanted a bachelor’s degree in human development next and chose an online degree completion program so she could study while spending time with her family. In fall 2008, Sylvia was accepted in WSU’s online program.

“DDP classes are very good,” says Sylvia, the first in her family to attend college. “I’m very glad I can work at my own pace and still have the teacher interaction when I need it.”

At Early Head Start, Sylvia teaches special needs and mainstream children, using Spanish, English, and sign language. She also makes home visits to teach parenting skills—simple things, she says, such as how to obtain a driver’s license or use food banks. In October, she was selected to go to the national Head Start conference in Washington, D.C., where she gave two presentations, one about bilingual education and one about her life.

Sylvia plans to earn her bachelor’s degree by 2010, then get a master’s in bilingual education. “I am the way I am because of my life experience,” she says. “I don’t settle for minimum. I want more.”

Parents begin arriving to pick up the preschoolers, who have howled with eight coyotes, hissed with nine snakes, meowed with 10 cats. None shows any sign of calming down. “Paku,” Sylvia says to the Russian-speaking boy, “Goodbye.”

After the children leave, she sits in a tiny wooden chair and switches to Spanish: “Se aprende de los golpes de la vida.” It’s a Mexican saying, she explains. “You learn from the hardships of life.”