‘Believe in the power of your story’: PhD grad celebrates heritage, ancestors, culture

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2021 graduates.

Stories can be funny. Stories can make us cry. Stories can make us wince. Stories can bore us. Stories can teach us. And sometimes, stories can change our lives and the lives of those telling them.

This is what Arizona State University student Monica Baldonado-Ruiz discovered in her doctoral program. She learned that “testimonio,” which the Latina Feminist Group defines as “the concept of telling one’s lived experience in a public space in order to illicit change and voice silenced histories,” was a way to connect everything she’d seen and experienced. She decided it was how she wanted to approach her teaching.

In testimonio, the storyteller is a witness, not only to what is happening externally but also internally. This makes the teller an expert — who else could tell this story with greater authority? — and gives validation to life events. Baldonado-Ruiz embraced this mode of validating the stories her students told.

Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baldonado-Ruiz is a first-generation college graduate and self-described Chicana educator.

“Celebrating my heritage, ancestors, and culture is why I do this work,” she said.

She learned that she wanted to advocate for others to be able to tell their stories when she took part in a summer writing institute as part of the Central Arizona Writing Project, an ASU site of the National Writing Project. In a later essay titled “Advocacy is a Story: The National Writing Project and Teacher Advocacy,” Baldonado-Ruiz brought the two together when she wrote, “Your story matters. Let it be heard.”

Baldonado-Ruiz is graduating this semester with a PhD in English (English education). She defended her dissertation, “Testimonio en Nepantla: Personal Narrative in the Secondary ELA Classroom,” on April 12. Her project explored how testimonio “serves as a student-driven approach to teaching writing and as counter to the test-driven, formulaic and impersonal writing forms that currently dominate writing instruction in secondary schools.”

We caught up with her to find out a bit more about her approach.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I realized I wanted to study in this field during my first year of teaching. While it took me 20 years to return to graduate school, I have known since then that I would study English and education in some form. To be able to combine them into one program was perfect for me and my goals. I want to teach teachers to teach from the lives of their students and to center their students’ voices. This program opened the space for me to do so.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I took a literature course with [Professor of English] Lee Bebout titled “Chicano Temporalities.” While I had studied Chicano literature during my undergraduate work at UNM, the perspective in this course helped me to change the trajectory of my dissertation study. I learned about testimonio. This collective approach to knowledge making and research changed my perception and gave me the opportunity to create a unit of study that centered the stories of my students, their ancestors and their experiences.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I was introduced to the Central Arizona Writing Project while teaching and it immediately felt like a space in which I belonged.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Wow, this is a tough question. Each professor with whom I worked taught me something important. My adviser [Professor of English] Jessica Early taught me to believe in the power of my voice and story, and her guidance opened so many doors for me. I will be forever grateful for that. [Assistant Professor of English] Sybil Durand taught me to remember why I do the work I do. She said, “This work is about humans and affects humans, it’s not just to forward a career — never forget that.”

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Believe in the power of your story. You are a unique individual who brings a history, a culture and a lifetime of experience to your work. Own that. Own your story.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I am a coffee shop addict! Lola Coffee in downtown Phoenix is a space I love. Palabras Bookstore in central Phoenix provides the best atmosphere for study. There is something special about being surrounded by bilingual books and enlightened energy.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I plan on continuing to write for the next year, then look to see what this post(almost)-pandemic world offers.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would tackle education reform. U.S. classrooms have historically been spaces that are not welcoming to our communities of color. I would work toward recruiting and keeping more BIPOC educators. I wish $40 million was enough to even make a small step toward education equity. However, systems are really what need changing. Systemic change will only come from human effort, not money.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler
kristen.larue@asu.edu