Celebrating Latino Heritage Month with the LPA
Inspiring Bilingual Students
|As she prepares to attend law school,
Karen Perez-Wilson is working with
English Language Learner students at
Middleton High School.
college. You have to be extra careful. There are a lot of college students who party hard. If they get caught, it’s different for them. DACAs don’t really have
much of a chance to mess up. We have to be careful with whatever we do.”
Perez-Wilson switched majors to legal studies and Chican@ and Latin@ Studies. She switched after checking out the course offerings.
“They were teaching topics that interested me,” Perez-Wilson said. “I didn’t really consider them as classes. ‘Wow, I can’t believe that these are courses.’ I
learned a lot about immigration, race, and enforcement, all of that sort of stuff that is related to human rights, which is ultimately what I am passionate about.
Chican@ and Latin@ Studies was another area where I saw the class offerings and I was like, ‘Oh, let me learn more about Chicana feminism and let me
learn more about Chicanix history, politics and immigration.’ I just felt really lucky that I found a major that just made me learn so much more about myself and
my identity and also sparked an interest in going to law school.”
It took Perez-Wilson seven years to graduate, taking off two years to work so she could save money for her tuition. Sometimes she would work two to three
jobs in order to save her tuition money. One of those jobs was with Middleton High School.
“All of my siblings went through the MCPASD district,” Perez-Wilson said.
“My sister was the one who said, ‘Hey there’s a job opening. You should
apply.’ I did. I interviewed and I loved it. I was going to be working with
bilingual students. I started in 2016. This is like my fourth academic year
here. I get asked this every year. ‘If you are trying to be a lawyer, why are you
here?’ The reality is I am very passionate about working with youth. I believe
in youth so much so that they inspire me. They motivate me, so I continue and
instill in them the power that education can bring to them.”
Perez-Wilson is a bilingual para-educator and works with ELL students
primarily through ESL programming. Although Perez-Wilson speaks Spanish,
it doesn’t mean she only works with Spanish-speaking students. She counts
students from Europe, Africa and Asia among the students with whom she
“I support classes that have ELL students, English Language Learner,” Perez-
Wilson said. “I support classes with 9-12th grade students, so I am all over
the place. This year, I’m supporting a lot of incoming students. I was very
lucky to meet them when they were in 6th grade at their feeder middle school.
Now I get to see them again and they are way taller. I work in the classroom.
We don’t have dual language instruction. I support the students in the
classroom. I work with anyone who speaks another language and they need
support with finding a tutor or helping them in class, or helping them take
tests. I’m someone they can come to if they need anything. I created a space
for them to be in, which is really cool to see the students be comfortable with
being in those spaces because sometimes in a school so big, there aren’t
many spaces for students of color. That’s very important for me again to feel
represented in a high school. That was kind of hard for me when I was in
high school. I’m trying to be that for many of them. I also help with translation
throughout the school year, meeting with families and interpreting.”
One could say that is what she is paid to do. But Perez-Wilson is on a
mission — and is passionate about that mission — to inspire the students to
excel academically and plan to go on to college and beyond. In many ways,
she is a role model for the students.
“I’m really trying to be the person that I needed when I was in high school,”
Perez-Wilson reflected. “And if I can be that representation for high school
students for them to see that people like us can go on to college and people
like us can go on to post-secondary education. That’s ultimately my goal. My
students here are going to see the process of what it is like for me to go to
college, get to interact with me on days where I have to submit an application
or I have to study for the LSAT. And the more that you are exposed to people
like that, the more it is a reality for them and the possibility that they too can
do it, especially for DACA students. I’ve been very fortunate that students can
confide in me, whether they are undocumented or not. They can see
themselves within my journey and also realize that your immigration status
doesn’t stop you and can’t stop you. That’s something that I really try to put
forth in everything that I do. And I think sometimes, especially when I was
younger, I used to think that all of these obstacles were a weakness,
something that was going to make it harder for me to succeed. I realized that
all of the hardships and all of these barriers that I’ve confronted just made
the journey more worthwhile and they benefitted me because the things that I
have lived through have made me stronger and have reassured me that I
can get through anything.”
When the Latino Professionals Association informed Perez-Wilson that she
would be featured, she was delighted. It would be another avenue for her to
inspire others and to urge them on.
“I’m really excited to be able to share a little bit about what I do with the
school district and what I do in the community,” Perez Wilson said. “I am
very excited to follow LPA and all of the cool things that they are doing. If I
can be of any support, then I hope they feel free to contact me to help inspire
more Latino professionals and encouraging them to help each other. Once
you are up there and making it, you have to turn around and help the next
person and pull them up. That is what my Latinx community has taught me
and that is something that I will forever carry.”
Right now, Perez-Wilson is preparing for the LSAT exam, which she needs in
order to apply to law school. She hopes to enter law school in Fall 2021. She
is determined to be a lawyer and not just any lawyer. She was to reach for
“I definitely want to be a practicing attorney,” Perez-Wilson said. “Eventually I
would like to become a judge or a clerk for a judge. I have really wild
dreams. I would love to be on the Supreme Court, but who knows. That’s the
big dream. I told myself that I was never going to climb the Supreme Court
stairs unless I was either taking a case to the Supreme Court or I was on the
Supreme Court. That’s how wild my dreams are.”
It’s not hard imagining Perez-Wilson climbing those Supreme Court steps one
day. It is easy to see her filling the shoes of Supreme Court Justice Sonia
Sotomayor. Perez-Wilson is intelligent and focused and feels that any
obstacle that she overcomes only makes her stronger. Perez-Wilson is a
Dreamer in every sense of the word and sometimes dreams do come true.
By Jonathan Gramling
Karen Perez-Wilson was just like any other Madison public school student who moved here with her family
when she was a little girl. She did come from a household that spoke Spanish as its primary language. And so
like many children, she became a family interpreter for her parents. But she was like any other kid in elementary
and middle school.
But then during her high school years, the difference between her and other students became magnified because
she was undocumented.
“Once students started taking driver’s education in high school, they are going to get their driver’s licenses,”
Perez-Wilson said. “That’s something that I couldn’t do. When people started applying for work permits and
starting to work in high school, that was something I couldn’t do, especially once you started applying to
colleges. It was easy for them to apply for FAFSA. That was something that I couldn’t do. I think high school was
definitely the place where I started to feel more different and my story wasn’t going to be the same.”
Perez-Wilson was determined to get a college education and entered UW-Madison to initially study international
business. But again, she wasn’t like the other students. She became a DACA student and was now able to work
and pay income taxes like her fellow students. But because she was an undocumented students, she was
forced to pay out-of-state tuition. And she couldn’t afford to have a “normal” collegiate experience.
“You’re always way more cautious,” Perez-Wilson emphasized. “That even goes back to high school and