Every graduation has a story behind it — a path chosen, a hurdle crossed. Every graduation also has a story ahead of it, an unfolding journey that starts after the toasts and the tassels.
Helen Arguelles, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English at Stan State, had younger feet walking beside her on her journey, a choice that became a new life for them both. Her daughter Monica Gudino will take her walk across the commencement stage in May, also completing an English degree, with plans for graduate studies.
Their story touched a Stan State professor, who found new energy through their excitement in his classes. “As a teacher, sometimes a terrible cynicism creeps-in and whispers that students can never really learn anything from you. This is of course an odious lie, and Helen banished that little voice, because she took several classes from me, and she grew. She suffered. She revised. And she learned. She seethed with enthusiasm while others groaned. I fell back in love with the things I was teaching because she loved them,” said English Professor Tony Perrello. “Now, as a Stan State faculty member she teaches the same literature to undergraduates. And she excels at it.”
When Arguelles dropped out of high school in the 1990s as a teen mom, few could have predicted she would one day be walking into university English classes — as the teacher. Arguelles will be a full-time Stanislaus State instructor this spring, a job she loves all the more because she knows her story resonates with the first-generation Latino students that fill most of the seats in her classes.
“That was me. As a first-generation student, I tumbled and stumbled my way through everything,” Arguelles said. Now she tries to inspire another generation of graduates. “It’s important that we’re ready for these students. It’s important that they have role models — I did it, and so can you.”
Arguelles made it through to graduation with help from teachers and the community, “That’s why I’m very loyal to this school, because of the support I got here.” In turn, she tries to pay it forward. “I’ve made it my life’s goal to help students know that they can belong, they do belong, in the community of education. Higher education is not an exclusive thing. It’s not mystical.”
Her favorite moments are students celebrating successes with gleeful high-fives. “That’s what I love about teaching, that excitement, that spark. If I had never gone to college, I would have never gotten to experience that,” she said.
For Arguelles, entering higher education as a first-generation student meant taking a leap into the unknown. For her daughter, Guidino, who knew she was expected to go college, it took gathering her confidence and committing to making something happen.
After tough high school years, higher education seemed a stretch, Guidino said. Her change of heart came while watching her mom speak at a gathering for recipients of the Mary Stuart Rogers Scholarship. “Seeing my first-generation Latino mother succeed. That was so impactful. That was something,” she said. “It was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this.’” Gudino, too, is now a Rogers Scholar.
And Gudino will go far, Perrello predicted. “She will enter a PhD program. She will be a teacher and scholar and write books and stuff. And she’s a great person. Again, a student that keeps me wanting to hone my craft and be a better teacher. A better scholar,” he said.
“Going to college was the difference between pursuing what I really love, and just having that retail job and that stewing feeling of, ‘I didn’t do it,’” Gudino said.
Arguelles agreed, “That’s what happens here at Stan State — dreams turn into goals and students figure out they can make them happen.”