Teaching English, inspiring civic engagement
When Ernesto “Eric” Aguilar ’01 left his career in counterdrug operations with the United States Air Force in 2005, he took the opportunity to travel the world. Over the next two years, he biked the “Big Lap” around the perimeter of Australia and through New Zealand, spent time whitewater kayaking and visited Cambodia and Europe.
But when he returned to the U.S., Aguilar found himself without a plan for the first time in his life. Knowing his love of other cultures, Aguilar’s stepmother offered him some advice: enroll in a graduate course to teach English to non-native speakers. There, Aguilar found his passion.
For someone with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, a career teaching English might seem an unexpected place to end up. But for Aguilar, it was a natural step. He’s been interested in other cultures since childhood, when his father sent him postcards from various places around the world. Being exposed to different ways of life was key for him growing up, Aguilar said, and it still is.
Aguilar acknowledged his unusual career path with a laugh. “I did a complete about-face,” he said. “I don’t regret it. I still don’t regret it at all. The experiences I’ve had, you just can’t put a price tag on those.”
As part of the graduate course, Aguilar “taught people who didn’t know one drop of English.” He came to believe that not only could learning the common language make the immigrant experience easier (something Aguilar knew firsthand after living in many foreign countries himself), but also that knowing English granted his students access to better career opportunities and, ultimately, a greater capacity to both benefit from and contribute to the U.S. economy.
Aguilar also valued his students’ gratitude and enjoyed seeing the immediate results of his work. “I was impacting someone who was really disadvantaged,” he said. “I found it motivating, and I just went for it.”
He again went abroad to gain international teaching experience but returned to the U.S. a few years later to get his master’s degree in applied linguistics from Portland State University in 2014. Still, Aguilar credits Mines with his ability to think big. “Mines was the first place that pushed me way, way past [my perceived limits]. It took me to a place far beyond where I thought I could ever reach,” he said.
This mindset has taken Aguilar from working with indigenous groups in Malaysian Borneo to advising English professors at a university in Bangkok, to providing support for minority and immigrant groups in the United States.
So what’s next for Aguilar? He currently teaches English in Arizona, and he has a vision of starting a nonprofit to help immigrants and refugees acclimate to life in the United States. “Hopefully I’d be giving them the language and culture skills to blend in with society but also to be civically engaged,” Aguilar said.
Civic engagement is important to Aguilar, and he believes it is something everyone should participate in. “I really love the notion that all citizens have some skin in the game,” he said. “And be it military service or be it social service of some kind, volunteering of some kind, I believe all should have an obligation to have some skin in the game and to