Grad Profile: Degrees are part of longer journey for mother, son

Miguel Cuate, 23, and his mother Bertha Cuate, 56, may be graduating this week from CSUB, but they have more degrees planned in their futures.

Bertha Cuate
MA Spanish, MS Early Childhood Education

Miguel Cuate
BA English, minor in Communications

As a child in El Salvador, Bertha Cuate was not allowed to go to school. Instead, she was expected to work and help her mother raise her eight siblings. She made her Bible her textbook and taught her friends with a little blackboard she found. She also vowed to give her own children every opportunity for education someday, and to extend her passion for learning to other disadvantaged children.

This month, Cuate, 56, is celebrating her accomplishment of graduating with a dual master’s in Spanish and Early Childhood Education from CSUB. She is also celebrating the first bachelor’s degree among her six children as her son Miguel, 23, graduates with a bachelor’s in English and minor in communications.

“I chose early childhood education because I believe that all children deserve to have the opportunity to be educated, to go to school,” she said. “I also believe that children learn by playing. (As a child) I didn’t have a toy to play with. All I had to do was work. So I thought, I need to learn more about early childhood education. How can we advocate for their rights to be children?”

Cuate was in her early 20s when she escaped from El Salvador in the middle of the night shortly after civil war broke out there in 1980. Family members and friends were being killed.

“Then one night, they went to my little house and put the white hand on the door, which means you were on the list. My uncle was in military school and he goes, ‘You need to leave the country now,’” she said.

She acted quickly, leaving behind her infant daughter with her mother. She ended up in Los Angeles, where she eventually married and started a family. Seeking a slower pace of life and affordable cost of living, her family settled in Bakersfield. And, eventually, her oldest daughter was able to leave El Salvador to join her.

When her daughter graduated from high school, Cuate became inspired to take early childhood classes at Bakersfield College with her. Thus began the journey of her dreams: to attain higher education. She transferred from BC to Taft College to complete her associate’s degree, then came to CSUB for a bachelor’s in child, adolescent and family studies, with a minor in Spanish.

She chose master’s degrees in early childhood education and Spanish so she would be able to teach in both languages. As a project at CSUB, she worked with associate professor Cary Larson-McKay to translate children’s books that she writes to support early literacy for young children.

“Bertha is a person with a wide view of the world and has a gentle caring approach to others,” Larson-McKay added.  “She is very supportive of fellow students in class and she cares deeply about providing the support others around her need – as evidenced by her relationships with her family and her students in her classes and members of her community.”

Today Cuate works at Taft College as an adjunct professor in early childhood education and as a tutor. One of her sons attends Taft College, another attends Bakersfield College, and another is taking some time off from CSUB but plans to return. Both of her daughters also attended BC.

Miguel said he and his siblings have been inspired by their mother’s drive and dedication to education.

“I’m very grateful for her appreciation of education,” he said. “She’s always told us, look at where she’s come from, and the sacrifice she’s made. We are in a country that allows us to get an education. There is no obstacle to it other than our own commitment.”

He recalled several late nights when he or his mom would be up studying or working on a paper, and the other would stay up as well to help.

“We’ve gotten each other through some difficult assignments,” he said.

Neither of them are done with their educations. Miguel plans to be a teacher someday and is applying to CSUB for either a master’s in English or a certificate in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages).

Bertha will also continue following her journey of being an educator. She is applying to the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership that CSUB recently began offering in partnership with Fresno State.

“I feel proud of myself because I accomplished one of my dreams. But this is not the end of my dreams,” she said.