2024 Student Essay Contest: 9-12 First Place

“Teachers Who Inspire: Vanessa Meneses’s Work at the End of the American Continent”

by: Verónica Contreras Sotelo (Catalina Foothills High School)

Interviewee: Vanessa Angelica Meneses Herrera (Colegio Marista Santiago)

What kind of person can change thousands of lives without even trying? The same kind of person who inspires us to pursue our dreams, challenges us to overcome our obstacles and shares their knowledge and skills with generosity and enthusiasm. These types of people are our teachers. Vanessa Meneses, a Chilean high school math teacher, is the epitome of this description. For most of her professional career, including the pandemic, she has worked in remote southern areas of Chile providing constant support, tutoring, and guidance to her students. In this essay, I will tell the story of Vanessa Meneses, highlighting the impact she has had on her students and Chilean education.

After graduating high school in 2007, Vanessa obtained the academic degree of bachelor of science with a mention in mathematics at the University of Chile, but “Penguin Revolution,” a national student movement, inspired her to pursue her teaching vocation. The movement aimed to introduce regulations to the public education system, but the nationwide protests brought attention to multiple flaws in the system. “What happens in Chile,” Vanessa explains, “is that pedagogy careers have fewer requirements than the rest of the professional fields,” which generally results in teachers with vague academic foundations. Attending forums and debates during the student movement made her realize that her true calling was in helping students. “I realized that at the university I attended, the pleasure I had for teaching and my interest in the mathematical area were going to help me have a good professional formation.“ The mindfulness and passion she developed during these years would be essential when working in the southernmost part of the American continent.

Afterward, Vanessa began working in the Aysen region, known for its extensive glaciers, fjords, and famous road trips in Chilean Patagonia. For six years, she worked in remote towns such as Cochrane, Chile Chico, and Puerto Aysen. “Coming to such a southern region makes me encounter a very different reality from that experienced by students who live in the capital,” she says. The remoteness caused by the region’s majestic geography prevents most students from pursuing higher education and leaving their hometowns “The closest university from where I worked was two hours away by barge plus a two-hour plane ride,” she explains. Ms. Meneses’ leadership and advocacy would inspire students to reach their full potential and pursue higher education at Chile’s top universities.

Most of Aysen’s college-bound students are first-generation students who lack role models and face technological limitations that make it almost impossible for them to search for better options elsewhere, despite their abilities. With the intention of expanding their future possibilities, she brings the high school teacher who helped her go to college, Oscar Alemany, to give the students advanced math classes to prepare them for the PSU (the University Selection Test) and instill in them a mathematical interest. A year later, during winter break, she invites high school seniors to stay at her parents’ house in Santiago and tour the capital for the first time to show them what they can achieve. She takes them to all of Santiago’s major colleges and shows them the cultural side of the city. “They arrived with a new vision of the world,” says Meneses.

One of the students she helps earned the highest regional score at PSU. “When she received her scores, several schools called her, including the University of Chile, one of the best engineering programs,” she comments. “Pedagogy gives you tools to change lives, and I try to take advantage of all the tools, plus the goodwill of the people around me,” she states. Vanessa is passionate about helping students see mathematics from a different perspective and preparing them for the university, but when the pandemic arrived, everything became more complicated.

In 2020, Ms. Meneses was working in Cochrane, a small town with only 3,000 residents. When the pandemic arrived, technical complications made the continuation of classes practically impossible. “We had students who lived very far away, students who had to travel by boat or ride a horse to receive their material.” Education in small towns took a big hit during the pandemic. The digital divide drives Ms. Meneses to work on her next professional goals; before 2020, technological education and computational thinking were never prioritized. Vanessa plans on developing and introducing computational thinking in schools from an early age.

Her work in the southern regions has encouraged her to continue her vocational development, but unfortunately, they have also shown the work that still needs to be done with women in STEM fields. “The first few years I only had seventh-grade and eighth-grade classes as a high school teacher. In Chile Chico and Cochrane, they gave me the same answer, since you are a woman you should get along better with children,” says Vanessa. These gender gaps not only impact current professionals. When she worked on her Statistics MD, Ms. Meneses found clear evidence about the impact of having female teachers during children’s formative years. They took data from questionnaires taken in eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades about academic interests and observed a large deviation for girls in mathematics when they reached twelfth grade. As they searched for possible explanations, they realized that the math department at this school has no women teachers after the eighth grade.

We must highlight influential women in mathematics because girls who grow up without female role models are discouraged from pursuing their dream careers in STEM. “Teaching has taught me that each student is a different world, sometimes you don’t realize how much you influence them,” says Meneses. From first-hand experience, she is the best role model a student could ask for. She was the teacher that got me into STEM, and ever since she has always supported me no matter where on the planet she was. Her dedication, effort, and leadership abilities are rare, and there is no doubt that she has inspired generations of young women to discover their potential.