Student Story

Buscaglia fellowship recipient knows the importance of “Care”

By Samuel Kim Published on
Bianca Centeno
Bianca Centeno Recipient of the Leo F. Buscaglia Endowed Fellowship

If Bianca Centeno, a second-year student in the Special Education Credential Master of Arts in Teaching program, had been told that she would one day receive a full-tuition fellowship to USC Rossier, she would have dismissed it as being farfetched. Early on, Centeno attended an urban elementary school that had low academic expectations for its students. And because Spanish was the language spoken in her home, she faced difficulties reading and writing in English until the fourth-grade.

Though Centeno’s parents, immigrants from Guadalajara, Mexico, never had the opportunity to attend college, they continually stressed the importance of education to her. “I am a first generation college student,” she said. “My parents never really had an education; my mother went up to sixth grade, and my father never received an education because he grew up very poor.”

Centeno credits a caring second-grade teacher, Sharon Bradley, for helping her learn to read and write in English. As a young student, Centeno greatly admired Ms. Bradley, who provided personal attention and instilled in the young girl the confidence to not only succeed in elementary school, but well beyond.

“Ms. Bradley would personally bring books to my house,” she said. “She always communicated with my mother in Spanish and understood my needs, and it really motivated me having someone who cared about me.”

Centeno also credits her tenth-grade Narbonne High School teacher, Sharon James, for personally introducing her to the college application process. She is one of the reasons why Centeno wanted to pursue higher education.

“Ms. James created personal workshops, outside of school, to help me with the application process,” she said. “She would organize field trips to college campuses to meet with admissions officers, and she even offered to pay for my application fee to UCLA.”

Armed with the motivation to succeed and the confidence of the teachers who mentored her, Centeno was accepted to UCLA for her undergraduate studies. She chose to study sociology and minor in education and public policy, due to her thirst to understand society and how educational institutions influence individuals.

At UCLA, her involvement with a high school mentoring program, called Mentors Empowering and Nurturing Through Education (MENTE), gave her the opportunity to relate to and support high school students who have come from urban educational backgrounds like hers.

“Serving in MENTE was a big influence on why I am here at Rossier, why I love research, and why I am passionate about education and serving the community.”

Upon gaining acceptance to USC Rossier, Centeno was given the opportunity to apply for the Leo F. Buscaglia Endowed Fellowship. The fellowship’s benefactor, Leo Buscaglia, was a professor and a triple alumnus of USC (BA ’50, MA ’54 and PhD ’63). To many, he was simply known as “Dr. Love,” as he taught a non-credit course at USC titled “Love 1A.”

The Leo F. Buscaglia Endowed Fellowship was established in 1989. A graduate of Roosevelt High School, an urban high school near USC, Buscaglia wanted to support students who have come from a similar background and desire to go back and teach in underserved schools.

In many ways, Centeno’s story is much like Buscaglia’s. Both were born and raised in immigrant families, attended high-need schools, and had difficulty with the English language early on. Moreover, Buscaglia, like Centeno, had a “caring teacher” who understood his specific educational needs and whose compassion has been a source of lifelong motivation.

One of Buscaglia’s memorable quotes reads, “When we reach out to someone and the effect is madeeveryone, everything which comes in contact with the person we’ve affected is better for it.” In her fellowship application, Centeno was asked to share the significance of this quote, as it relates to her life and desire to contribute to urban education.

“The key word that came to my mind when I read this quote was “care” and the importance of caring,” Centeno wrote. “This was what I emphasized when I did my research at UCLA and why it is important to care and how that translates into motivating students to be better people.”

Centeno was one of two recipients to receive the full-tuition Buscaglia fellowship this academic year. “It’s a blessing that I’ve come so far, but receiving a full-tuition fellowship was icing on the cake,” she said. “Had I not received the scholarship, I would not have been able to come to USC.”

Centeno knew when she came to USC Rossier that she wanted to be in the Special Education Credential MAT program. Her desire to enter into this program stems from the frustrations that her family experienced regarding her brother, Nestor’s, Individualized Education Program (IEP).

“My brother is in special education,” she said. “He was in a setting where they had low expectations, administration did not know what they were doing, and IEPs were not addressing my brother’s educational needs.”

Centeno can further relate to Buscaglia through her brother, as Buscaglia himself was misplaced in special education during his primary education. “Seeing how many students are placed in special education when they aren’t supposed to be, made me want to be an educator and care for students who need someone who can address their needs.”

It is the lack of attention to special needs students and what Centeno believes was a misdiagnosis of her brother’s learning capability that compelled her to be an educator.

After graduation, Centeno plans on receiving her Bilingual, Cross-cultural, Language, and Academic Development (BCLAD) credential and work in a district with high needs. She ideally wants to go back to Gardena, her hometown, and help students like her brother receive the best education possible.

“My passion and goal is to be a teacher,” she said. “I am interested in bilingual education and want to teach elementary students.”

Had Buscaglia been alive today, he would have undoubtedly seen that Centeno’s altruistic manner, love, and care toward those most in need in education are not far off from his own.

"I want to make the students realize that they are scholars in their own way and smart individuals who can succeed and make a difference in the world."
Bianca Centeno


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