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MaríaElena Díez Esquer: ELP Grad Celebrates Mid-Career Doctorate, Familial Commitment to Education

By Joanie Harmon

Assistant superintendent of educational services at Palmdale School District addressed the Class of ’22 at the first SEIS commencement ceremony since 2019. 

Among the many festive touches at the commencement ceremony in Wilson Plaza for the SEIS Class of 2022 was a tiny folder placed on the chairs of the 400-some graduates. Inside each packet were affirmation cards, to boost the spirits of the recipients further at this long-awaited celebration. The simplicity of the messages – “Be happy with being you” or “You are important and valued,” speaks to the compassion and joy of the giver of the cards, MaríaElena Díez Esquer.

“Elena has a depth and warmth about her that’s awesome,” said Judy Miyoshi, program manager of the Educational Leadership Program, from which Esquer graduated last week with her Doctorate of Education in Leadership. “She is a class act.”

Esquer, who serves as assistant superintendent of the Palmdale School District, delivered the address from the UCLA Department of Education at the commencement ceremony, one of three in-person events for the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies on June 11, the first ceremonies to take place for the school since the pandemic began. 

Esquer earned her associate of arts degree from Antelope Valley College, her bachelor’s degrees in sociology and in psychology from CSU Northridge, and her teaching credential and master’s degree in educational leadership from CSU Bakersfield.  She has served Palmdale School District for 25 years, including her time as an elementary school teacher in 1st, 2nd, and 5th grades, as well as kindergarten. Esquer serves on the board of the California Association for Bilingual Education.

The first-generation daughter of immigrants, Esquer speaks here of the role model her mother has been as the first holder of a doctorate in her family; her own work in a poverty-challenged but rewarding school district; and the perseverance and dedication that marked her ELP experience, learning shoulder-to-shoulder (if virtually) with fellow educational professionals, and the UCLA Ed faculty that guided their journeys.

What is your role as the assistant superintendent of educational services for the Palmdale School District?

We’ve been an elementary school district, but this year we added a dependent charter high school, so we’re a TK-9 district. We also have five middle schools, seven K-8s and 16 elementary [schools], so we’re a very large district.

As a school district, our business is educating students, our business is instruction and learning. So, that's really what this division entails. We handle all of the instructional educational technology, not the hardware or software piece of it, but the pieces that we help teachers integrate into the curriculum. We work with all of our teachers, our site leaders, and all of our parents to impact student learning. We also support all of our new teachers, our community events and all of our extended learning. We handle all the assessment for learning in our district, and look at all of the access and equity, and how we work with families, and how our students are treated. 

It’s a big division, but it's really the heart of what we do every day. Palmdale is highly impacted by poverty. There are a lot of mental health needs. The students and families that we serve are wonderful, and we want to be able to provide them with all the opportunities that we can while they’re here with us. It’s really a pleasure to serve.

What attracted you to UCLA for your Ed.D.?

I am a huge Bruin supporter, in that sense, and so I'm really excited to actually say I’m a real Bruin now. My youngest son is a Bruin, he graduated from UCLA back in 2016.He's always teasing me, [saying], “You can be a real Bruin with me now.”

I love the cohort structure that UCLA provided. Plus, it was always UCLA - I honestly didn't look anywhere else, so if I hadn't gotten in, I probably wouldn't be graduating from any place. I decided it was UCLA or nothing.

I’ve served as a leader for 15 years. I was an assistant principal for three years, I was a principal for seven, and I’ve served in this role for seven years. It’s just the whole [nature] of leadership – you’re never done learning, you’re never done trying to grow, you’re never done trying to improve. 

I just love the program and its social justice focus. I loved how it integrated people from different roles. For example, I’m not familiar with higher ed because I'm a K-12 person. I wanted to learn about the systemic educational structures that other [leadership] roles are involved in, and UCLA offered that. And then, the equity piece of really learning how to change systems, how to create an effect, long range or sustainable – the strides towards that. I know that it goes beyond just what a university provides, and beyond what a system of education provides. I wanted to be able to learn about that. 

What are some of the highlights of your ELP experience?

I love my cohort. They are amazing change agents. These folks are so passionate and so smart and just so committed to changing the world. It’s been great to be together with them. We have been on Zoom, like everybody else, for the last couple of years, but we had a good first eight months together, so it really helped us to bond. 

Really, from the very first retreat weekend, we were a very tight knit group - we became family. We look out for each other and support each other as best we can in every way, in personal life issues and school issues. I’m just really proud of all of them, they're just the best group of people I’ve ever known. They’re so smart and I can’t imagine that they won’t reach the things that they want to reach. They will change the things they want to change because they have this big-hearted passion. 

The structure of the program and the learning we were able to do, came from the professors. We've had really great professors who have balanced research with the practitioner role. It’s helped us to learn from the research and to seek more research. I think that's important, if you’re always learning and you're trying to make things better, whether you're in higher ed or in K-12, or you’re a researcher. It’s been a really great balance of both [worlds].

Dr. (Lynn) Kim-John, one of the directors of the program, she’s been a big support for all of us. She believes in us. All of the professors, you can reach out to any of them and they've all been very, very supportive, I really appreciate all they do for us. 

My two chairs for my dissertation are Dr. (Christina) Christie and Dr. (Kristen) Rohanna, and they’ve been fabulous, helpful, and so patient with me. All of the professors have been a good reminder to us of why we’re doing this, why we embarked on this. They remind us of how important all of these things are. 

ELP graduate MaríaElena Díez Esquer surprised her 91-year-old mother, Elena María Diez (both at center), as one of the student speakers at the SEIS Commencement on June 11.

What inspired you to enter a career path in education?

I’m the daughter of Cuban immigrants, and I was the only one born here; my siblings were born in Cuba. My parents came here in 1963, and they went through a lot in leaving their country and coming to this country, learning English. My mom who is 91, is actually the first doctor in our family. She got her doctorate in psychology and in child psychology in Cuba, at a time when women really did not go for a higher degree. 

When she got here, she couldn't use it because it wasn't valid here. Her goal was always to get a doctorate here, but as an immigrant, the cost, the time, and the language barriers for her were too great. So, she went back to school at Mount St. Mary’s and got a master’s degree in early childhood education, and she worked for Head Start until she retired. My dad was an accountant, he was an auditor for Crocker Bank, which is now Wells Fargo.

We were all pretty proud of her when she got her master's. I was eight or nine years old when we were on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s. I didn't understand what it really meant at the time, but as I grew older, I figured out with what a sacrifice it was for [my parents], with all the night long nights, with the language, and struggling and all of that she had to go through. 

My parents really left everything behind, like most immigrants do. That’s not unique to them in any way. But it couldn’t take away what they had [inside]. In my house, education was priority, because no one can take that from you. I grew up with that in the foreground, and it really stuck with me as a child. It’s driven my career; it’s driven my service. It’s driven how I raised my children and everything that I’ve done.

I’m probably the oldest or one of the oldest graduates, I would imagine. I’ve been on this educational journey for almost 40 years. After I got my master’s, I waited a while. I have four children, so my husband and I put them all through school and I waited a while to go back in and get the doctorate. When I finished my AA, I thought, “Okay, one down, three more to go.” For my mom, it should be kind of a full circle moment for her. I wish my dad was here to see, but I know he's watching from above. It’s been a long time coming, so it just means a lot to me.

One of the things I promised my mom when I was really young was… her degree was [hanging] on a wall, and she couldn’t really use it. I would ask her why it was hanging on the wall, and she said, “Well, it’s my reminder that I worked hard, that I’ve learned, and that I’m always a learner.” And I said, “Well, I promise you one day, I’m going to put mine next to yours, it will be like you having gotten [your degree] here.”  

Photo courtesy of MaríaElena Díez Esquer