It doesn’t take long to recognize that Fanny Zamarripa is a force of nature. 

Since moving to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 15, Zamarripa has gone from stitching blue jeans in a factory for five cents a pair to launching her own business. She has also become a mother, overcome cancer and dedicated herself to helping her community thrive. 

But Zamarripa’s tale of perseverance and personal growth might not have been possible, she says, without support from instructors like Mónica Hilario, who both in the classroom and out helped give her the tools and self-belief she needed to succeed. 

“Mrs. Mónica is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without her.” 

Hilario and Zamarripa first met in 2015, after Zamarripa enrolled in UCLA Extension’s Spanish- language Early Childhood Education Certificate program, where Hilario was an instructor. Zamarripa had always been interested in working with children, but the road to considering child care as a career had been long and indirect; her “flight to the American Dream,” she says, began almost three decades earlier, when the owner of the factory where she worked as a teenager encouraged her to go back to school. 

“Arriving in the U.S. had a big effect on me,” Zamarripa said. “I really missed my siblings and friends and family back home, so I focused on work and studying.” 

After receiving her high school diploma, Zamarripa was awarded a scholarship to a local university, but couldn’t attend because of her immigration status at the time. Instead, she worked a series of odd jobs – in retail, food service and as a paralegal – until a three-year fight with thyroid cancer forced her to stop working entirely. 

It wasn’t until after she recovered, and a friend recommended her for a job taking care of a neighbor’s twin boys, that Zamarripa truly found her calling. She soon dedicated herself to child care as a career, learning as much as possible about the field, in part by enrolling at UCLA Extension. 

“Having knowledge and credentials is important, not just because it helps you be a better educator, but also because it builds trust,” Zamarripa said. “It’s an investment in yourself, because it gives families the confidence and peace of mind that you are qualified to take care of their little ones.” 

In Hilario, Zamarripa found a mentor and friend, and someone who understood the challenges that she and students like her were facing. Hilario herself moved to the U.S. from Peru when she was nine. As a long-time teacher in Los Angeles public schools, she knew that language skills could be a barrier keeping city residents from studying or taking part in vocational training courses. In 2006, when she heard that UCLA Extension was launching a program to help Spanish speakers earn certifications required to work in early childhood education, she quickly signed up to teach classes. 

“Many of our students were teachers and educators in their home countries, but they weren’t sure how to approach the certification system here in California,” Hilario said. “There was a gap at the time that UCLA Extension filled.” 

Hilario began by teaching core education courses, but soon also helped develop curricula for administrative coursework aimed at helping certificate graduates learn the skills they would need to open and run day care centers of their own. Hilario has since taught some 400 students as part of the program, many of whom have gone on to work as teachers, private nannies and daycare workers after completing the yearlong certificate. 

“When these women graduate, they’re equipped with tools not just to advance their careers but also to provide vital services for people in their communities,” Hilario said. 

For Zamarripa, that has translated into building a successful career and helping others do the same. In 2021, she started a small business running workshops and private seminars that help Spanish-speakers better understand the professional landscape for childhood education and care in Los Angeles. She’s even had Hilario step in as a guest speaker. 

“The Spanish-language cohort students rely heavily on each other to keep themselves going and to complete the program,” said Helen Davis, director of UCLA Extension’s Early Childhood Education Program since 2013. “Fanny ended up being a leader in the group and encouraged four other students to complete their certificates. All four of them came to graduation in caps and gowns!” 

In addition to her early childhood education certificate, Zamarripa earned a UCLA Extension certificate in teaching English as a second language – and outside the institution went on to complete more than a dozen training and certification courses, including in Pikler and Montessori education, newborn care, and postpartum doula training. She’s currently training to become a certified nursing assistant, and credits both Hilario and Davis for encouraging her to keep studying. 

“They were my inspiration and motivation for earning those certificates,” she said. 

In the years since Zamarripa graduated, Davis has led efforts to make the program accessible to more people. Beginning in 2018, early childhood education was included in UCLA Extension’s CareerBridge program, which provides free and low-cost certificates to individuals identified through community outreach organizations. 

Even so, it isn’t always easy for students to find funding and Davis is busy thinking of new ways to bring more students into the classroom. As the early childhood education program broadens its reach, especially in underserved parts of Los Angeles, Davis hopes stories like Zamarripa’s will help spread the word about the opportunities the program provides. 

“Programs like this one have positive and snowballing effects on our wider Los Angeles community,” Davis said. “That’s why we’re so committed to being creative about expanding access to our courses. It’s an investment in the future of the city.” 

For Hilario, the goal is to keep teaching and giving back – and hopefully continuing to inspire people like Zamarripa to do the same. 

“We’re teaching men and women to care for the next generation, to teach children how to play and engage with the world,” she said. “What could be more important than that?”

This article is adapted from the UCLAx magazine spring 2024 issue.