Carolina Ríos grew up in Bogotá, Colombia hearing a lot about the importance of an education. Her father Pedro taught elementary school for 35 years in everything from mathematics to gym to philosophy. The most frequent piece of advice he gave his daughter was that she “keep growing and keep learning.”

When Ríos’ father died in 2021, that message took on a deeper meaning. She had recently given birth to her second daughter and was about to begin a certificate program in early childhood education at UCLA Extension. In the many long nights that followed, balancing work, study and raising a young family, Ríos kept her father's guidance firmly in mind.

"There were times I wouldn't get to sleep until three or four in the morning, but remembering his words gave me extra motivation to move forward," Ríos said. "The hard work was a way of starting to heal that loss."

When she graduates on June 23, Ríos will be following in her father's footsteps as an educator – even if her path has taken her more than 3,000 miles from home.

Ríos came to the U.S. in 2014 and, while she waits for an adjustment to her immigration status, hasn't been able to go back to Colombia since. The decision to stay has given her more opportunities for growth, but has also come with significant sacrifice, she said.

"Leaving your home and your family isn't a decision you can take lightly," Ríos said. "I decided to stay in the U.S. but it wasn't a decision I could have made alone. My parents supported me because they wanted me to have more opportunities."

After earning a degree in primary education in Colombia, Ríos enrolled in UCLA Extension’s CareerBridge program, which works with community organizations to expand access to professional training for in-demand careers. She hopes the certificate will help her one day open her own pre-school or daycare center to support young families in her neighborhood, including others who, like her, have had to adapt to life in the U.S.

"Adjusting to the language, adjusting to the culture, it can be a challenge," Ríos said. "I love teaching and I love to work with children, so I see that as a way I can serve my community."

Ríos said the UCLA Extension coursework also helped her on a more personal level.

"Everything I learned I put into practice with my own children, from ways to transmit calm and just help them feel more at ease, to better understanding each stage in their development and being able to support them with the right tools," Ríos said.

After nine years in the U.S., Ríos now considers Los Angeles home. But when she graduates, her thoughts will be at least partly back in Colombia, especially with her father.

"He was an excellent teacher,” she said.