Take a glimpse at the desk of Rosanna Castellanos, a bilingual special education teacher at Goudy Elementary School in Chicago, and you may be surprised by what you see. In addition to pencils, pens, textbooks and lesson plans, Castellanos has stacks of literature on how to control roaches, bats, mice and ants.

Castellanos – who immigrated to the United States from Guatemala – is doing her research, as she plans to start a pest control business with her husband. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Castellanos is opening the business under her name and plans to work with her husband, who as a non-citizen can’t launch a new enterprise by himself.

This experiment in entrepreneurship fits well into the narrative of Castellano’s life. Hers is a story of self-education and hard work, in which she has been everything from a babysitter to an insurance clerk, student of English, teacher’s assistant and now, a bilingual special education teacher with a steady income and the chance to help her family back home.

Humble Beginnings

When she first arrived in the U.S., Castellanos established five goals for herself: to get citizenship, have her own house and a car, collect no debt, keep a good job and be in school.

“When I have a goal, I really want to do it,” she said. “I want to be better.”

Like so many immigrants, Castellanos came to the States with a history of achievement, including a degree from Mariano Galvez Universidad. But despite her advanced education, the transition to professionalism in the U.S. was slow. Castellanos started off as a babysitter, working for three years while taking English classes at Truman College on Saturdays.

Castellanos found ways to make even her babysitting job an educational experience, watching Three’s Company and Sesame Street with her babysitting charge and absorbing the English spoken on the television set.

“I was learning with her,” Castellanos laughed in talking about the toddler for whom she cared. To further educate herself, Castellanos tried to watch 90 percent of television programs in English and to read English newspapers.

Castellanos’ lack of citizenship was never a problem until three years into the job, when her employers needed her to drive their three-year-old daughter to school. Castellanos, who had no driver’s license, had to leave the position.

“It pushed me to look for another job,” Castellanos said in retrospect.

Entry into Education

In the period that ensued, Castellanos tried to redefine herself and find her place in the American job landscape. She got a bachelor’s from Northeastern University and worked towards a teaching certificate by taking classes “anywhere my schedule would fit,” she said: at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Harold Washington and Wright College.

Castellanos also worked as an insurance company clerk, serving as a bridge between the company’s operations and the Spanish community.

But after two years Castellanos realized that “being at a desk all day long doing the same thing” just wasn’t the life she wanted, she said.

“This is not what I really like,” she recalled thinking. “This is for a while. I’m leaving, I’m leaving.”

It was at that point that a friend told her about a position as a teacher’s assistant, and Castellanos’ career in education began. Castellanos worked as a a bilingual special education teacher’s assistant for four years.

But to move up required more schooling. The school principal – “a blessing,” Castellanos now calls him – offered to enroll her in a Master’s program in Special Education at Governor’s State University. The school board covered tuition, and Castellanos returned as a full-fledged certified teacher, a position she holds to this day, a decade later.

Lifting Up the Family

Every month, without fail, Castellenos sends money to her extended family in Guatemala. The checks have been used in myriad ways: to help pay for new glasses and medical procedures for family members; to make sure her parents always have at least water, electricity and a car; to put her nephews and nieces through school; and to assist her sister, a struggling single parent.

American dollars stretch far once in Guatemala, Castellanos said.

“If you send $100, it becomes $800 in my currency,” she said. “That can pay one month of private school for my nephew. If I send $200, I’m paying for my nephew and my niece.”

Castellanos visits Guatemala every year, bringing her three children with her. These frequent visits, she said, have given her children a heightened appreciation for what they have.

Their connection to Guatemala goes beyond the outgrown clothes they regularly send back; they understand that, for many, the dollar menu at McDonald’s is a luxury and a $10 calculator is a treasure, she said.

“They say, ‘I don’t need those shoes that cost $60.’ They always go, 60 times eight [the currency equivalent between the U.S. and Guatemala],” she said. “We don’t waste money. We don’t waste food.”

Today, Castellanos is also using her citizenship to sponsor her brother and mother to relocate and become U.S. citizens themselves.

Whether through sending gifts or offering sponsorship, helping family abroad is the central perk of American citizenship, Castellanos said.

“That’s why I wanted to be a citizen,” she said.