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Helping At-Risk Students Reach Their Potential

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There is a special place in Dr. Cynthia Gomez’s heart for at-risk students. A teacher by trade, she has taught students of all ages and grade levels from elementary to high school, making a difference along the way; however, as the director of developmental education at Hodges University, her passion is to ensure adult learners receive the instruction and assistance needed in order to achieve a college education.

Admitting she is “wired for teaching,” Gomez brings an element of fun into her classroom. With a background in communication, theatre and speech, she doesn’t adhere to the standard front of the classroom teaching structure. Instead, you will find her moving around the room and often getting her students out of their seats to participate in a classroom activity.

“I just enjoy being in the classroom,” she said. “As the director of developmental education, it is my mission is to educate individuals who may experience particular life and/or educational challenges that prevent them from making academic progress.”

Cynthia Gomez

Cynthia Gomez

Although her student population mostly consists of adults these days, the familiarity of working with at-risk students is not foreign to Gomez, even though her initial aspirations were to work in medicine, not education.

“Everyone in my family is in the medical field, so that’s what I wanted to do when I went to college,” she said. However, after realizing she would have to take Introduction to Nursing, she sat in the dean’s office and demanded she would not take the class, saying, “I grew up surrounded by the medical environment, so I didn’t feel like I needed to take that class.” Learning she would either have to take the class or change majors, she decided medicine was no longer in her future and switched to communication.

“I had a lot of experience already in communication. In high school, I wrote for our city’s local newspaper, I was on the yearbook staff, and I participated in speech and drama,” she said.

Attending Cedarville University, she was involved in many on-campus activities, including student government and drama. Her extensive knowledge and experience with costume and makeup led to her acceptance of a full-time position with the university’s drama department while as a student. “I did 14 shows in four years,” she explained. “However, it paid for my schooling.”

Earning her bachelor’s degree in communication – platform arts in 1988, she applied for a teaching position in Miami, Florida. Moving into a small garage and living with two other teachers, she began working at a local Christian school teaching high school speech and debate, in addition to middle school language arts.

Cynthia and her daughter, Cera

Cynthia and her daughter, Cera

Marrying her husband in 1989, she spent a few years away from the teaching scene but worked various jobs until her daughter, Cera, was born in 1992. Trying to get into the public school system for eight years, it wasn’t until a few teachers approached Gomez and informed her of a new high school opening up that she found her way back into the classroom.

“Our church did the Broward County Christmas pageant, and I was the technical director for eight years. Our church was at a public high school for a while and some of the teachers saw me training people on how to do makeup. They approached me and asked if I would teach their students how to do that, then they asked me if I was a teacher and told me about this new high school opening,” she explained.

Officially entering the public school system, she found it ironic because of her lack of desire to teach in a public school system, live in a big city or have many kids in a classroom. “I lived in Miami, I married someone whose family didn’t speak English, and I was working at the largest high school in the country,” she said.

Teaching speech, debate, drama, technical theatre and introduction to mass media, she began noticing an influx of students who could not speak English. As one of the few teachers who spoke Spanish, she eventually found herself teaching an English class with 35 students, saying, “I had an English as a Second Language (ESL) aide, and while I taught this half of the class in English, she taught the other half in Spanish.”

At this point, Gomez realized her desire to earn a master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL), which she earned from Florida International University in 2002. Equipped with her degree, she became the ESL program director for the school, managing the language development for 600 students for three years.

From 2003-2008, Gomez used her professional experience and relationships to expand her credentials. After becoming a national writing coach in 2004, her mentor encouraged her to take the national board certification; a goal Gomez was unsure she could achieve. After a year spent gathering and preparing all her materials for submission, she earned her national board certification in November 2008.

After spending so many years in Miami, Gomez and her family decided it was time for a change, so they moved to Naples. “I discovered Hodges was hiring for an English professor, and so I applied,” she said. “However, I was still under contract with the school in Broward County, so until I knew I had the job at Hodges, I had to commute back and forth across Alligator Alley.”

Cynthia with her husband, Felipe and their son, Tony

Joining Hodges in 2010 as a professor of English, she faced a new challenge – teaching adults, and while she taught others who desired a college degree, she, too, was in pursuit of continuing her education, saying, “After earning my national board certification in 2008, my mentor told me, ‘You know what’s next? Your Ph.D.’” Enrolling at Capella in April 2009, Gomez went on to earn a doctoral degree in education – leadership and educational administration in December 2012.

Working at an institution with a high number of adult learners, there was a concern for what is known as “at-risk” or “underprepared” students, especially among individuals who do not speak English. Combining her experience in Miami, her ability to speak Spanish and her understanding of the culture, Gomez accepted the position of director of developmental education at Hodges.

In 2013, the Florida Senate passed SB 1720, a bill that cut funding for developmental education programs, specifying that students who possess a high school diploma or who have served in the United States military are not required to take developmental education classes. Since the passing of the bill, many schools do not provide the type of educational opportunities for students who may struggle with college-level courses; however, with Gomez’s instruction and leadership, Hodges students are becoming better equipped with the necessary instruction to excel and succeed in their degree programs.

Cynthia with members of the School of Liberal Studies

Cynthia with members of the School of Liberal Studies

Overseeing Basic Math and Fundamentals of English I and II, she works closely with adjunct faculty members, collects data about Hodges’ at-risk students and manages the online lab. Starting in fall 2017, Hodges will offer a 12-credit hour college preparatory course that is immersion intensive, providing students with the proper skills to prepare them for college courses. “Students will have class twice each week, and because it is 12 credit hours, this class will be the only one they take for the semester,” she said. Working with various departments and deans, Gomez plans for students to learn more about the basics of being a college student, such as time management and organizational skills.

“I look at myself as an advocate for these students,” she explained. “As their teacher, they will receive tough love from me, but I always tell them I will be their biggest cheerleader.”