Above, Hamilton High principal Brenda Pensamiento, walks the halls with leadership student Usbaldo Ramirez-Perez.
Not long after her third child was born, Hamilton Senior High School principal Brenda Pensamiento recalls running her first marathon.
“Before that I was barely able to run one mile,” she recalled. “But, I kept at it until I could. And then another mile…and then another…”
She has vivid memories of when she first came to Los Angeles in the 1980s. She was only 14 when her family fled the civil war in Nicaragua.
“I was terrified of coming to the United States,” she said. “I was at an age at which I had established roots back home. I had a life. I had friends. This was a foreign land to me, and I didn’t know the language. But, I believe things happen for a reason.”
She attended Los Angeles Senior High School and found comfort when she spoke to other students whose families were refugees.
“There were a lot of students from El Salvador, and they understood what I had been through,” she said. “Right away they knew my story. Some of us are still in contact to this day. And, we all know exactly what is going on in the minds of every student who is an English learner.”
With the support of new friends and Los Angeles High faculty who recognized promise in her, Pensamiento worked hard to master the English language. Very soon after, she was reclassified as English proficient and excelled academically. She and her friends became the first-ever English learners to join the all student body leadership team at Los Angeles Senior High School. There she helped create a bilingual newspaper and bilingual theatrical productions.
“It all happened right there in Room 163,” she said smiling. “For the first time here in the U.S., I felt I was able to fit in while holding on to my cultural roots and my language…and be respected at the same time.”
She graduated with honors and attended California State University Northridge as a journalism major. When her college experience was shaken apart — quite literally — by the Northridge Earthquake, she reflected on where she had been and where she was going.
“There is not much in life that I am afraid of,” she said. “But, I am afraid of earthquakes, so that experience really affected me. I took a long, hard look at what I really wanted in life.”
She said she had resisted the pull to become an educator like her mother was back in Nicaragua for quite some time. But, then she saw it as a way to fulfill her mission to inspire others the way her teachers had inspired her.
She enrolled at Cal State L.A. and changed her major to Spanish literature.
“I wanted to honor my native language,” she said. “Language to me is heavily linked to culture. And, knowledge and understanding of a culture is the key to a well-rounded student.”
She went on to earn her bachelors degree followed by teaching and administrator credentials and a masters degree in counseling. Before long she was a teacher at Los Angeles Senior High School where her U.S. education had begun, actually filling a position vacated by one of her own former teachers. She became a counselor at the school, replacing one of her own former counselors, and then a Title I coordinator.
“I felt I had truly come home and found a new family,” she said. “I was making a difference in students’ lives and felt fulfilled in a way I never had before. My plan was to remain at at Los Angeles High until the day I retired. ”
She remained committed to that goal until she was approached by the District to become an administrator at nearby West Adams Prep when the new school opened its doors in 2008.
“Again I resisted, but they were insistent,” she said. “I would not have changed my mind except that the site of the new school happened to be the exact location where my parents worked when they first came to the United States.”
Her mother herself a school principal and her father an accountant back in Nicaragua gave up their professions to start over in the U.S. Her father spent years ironing garments and her mother worked as a seamstress. All, she said, so their children could have a shot at success.
Again she said, “Things happen for a reason.”
Years later, she was principal at Clinton Middle School, where she fostered a partnership with Diplomas Now, a John Hopkins University project that supports personalized graduation plans for students at risk of dropping out. While at Clinton she was recognized for her work with a Spark Educator Award for efforts to bring internships to eighth grade students.
Now the principal at Hamilton Senior High School and the mother of three, she reflects on what it means to be both a parent and an educator.
“I think wearing the parent hat keeps me grounded as a principal,” she said. “With every decision I make, I think of my own children and ask myself, as a parent, does this make sense to me? Is it relevant? Will it help this child?’”
Last year she had the unique experience of handing a diploma to her own daughter — the oldest of her three — as she walked across the Hamilton High graduation stage. Now a student at UCLA, Pensamiento said her daughter looks to her and her husband — himself a child refugee from El Salvador — as her primary source of inspiration.
“She said that after what my husband and I have been through, if we can do it then so can she,” she said. “She says she has no excuse not to be as successful as she can be.”
In fact, Pensamiento doesn’t mind reflecting on her life story with her children — or with anyone.
“I came to America for a reason,” she said. “And, I believe that reason is to tell my story. If others can learn from my experience and be inspired to be what they want, then I will have accomplished my mission in life.”
She is also not shy about sharing her views about her adopted country’s current political climate.
“If I were a teenager today, in the situation I was in 30 years ago, I would be a Dreamer,” she said. “I know what it’s like to spend every minute worried about what could happen tomorrow, what will I do if I cannot become legalized. I know what it’s like to worry about whether I will be able to continue to get an education or get health care if i need it.”
She says she learned to turn her worries into opportunities to achieve, a philosophy she hopes to instill in her own three children, every one of the 2,700 students at Hamilton High, and any student looking for guidance.
“I tell my students to persevere, have faith and hold on to the people who believe in you,” she said. “Let people know what you really want in life. People will notice you. Don’t give up on your grades. Don’t give up on anything. Others will be there ready to lift you up and help you stay on a path to success.”
Just in case there is any doubt about Pensamiento’s belief system, she has a sign above her desk that reads ‘Success: Achieved through effort, determination and perseverance.’ She says she will never stop taking those words to heart for as long as she lives.
“I say this to my kids: if I can run a mile, then I can run a marathon. And, if I can run a marathon, then I can run another marathon…and so on. That’s how it is with dreams. You start with what you can do and work your way forward: one mile at a time.”