Karla Sanabria Matos, a BHC Scholar and education major, is working on her Honors Undergraduate Thesis on how children with chronic illnesses lack adequate educational support. Karla is actively involved with the Puerto Rican Student Association and Student National Education Association. Her future plans include pursuing her master’s degree at UCF, obtaining her Ph.D. at the University of Washington, and implementing a university program dedicated to helping instruct students with chronic illnesses.

Tell us about yourself. Why did you choose UCF?

I am a born and raised Puerto Rican. In the fall of 2016, I began my undergraduate studies at the University of Puerto Rico as a nursing major. However, life took me through many twists and turns and I ended up abruptly moving to Florida after Hurricane Maria struck my island. I continued my studies at Valencia College, where I finished my general courses and began nursing school. Yet, I rapidly realized the noble nursing profession was not the one I was destined to follow. I applied to UCF’s elementary education program and have not regretted the decision since. UCF has provided me a unique sense of community and belonging [while] so far away from home. I can truly say I have met people that I will cherish for the rest of my life, both personally and professionally.

What major experiences (leadership, research, internship, or study abroad) have you had so far while at UCF? What did you learn from them - how do you think they helped you get where you are today?

The first organization I joined was the Puerto Rican Student Association, simply to meet other Puerto Rican scholars and to be surrounded by individuals who understood what I was going through at the time. The second organization I joined was Student National Education Association (SNEA); my goal when I joined was to solely gain some professional development opportunities as a member. Nevertheless, I was welcomed by such kind and intellectual peers that I obtained incredible role models and friends through this association. This year, I decided to step up to a more direct leadership position and was elected SNEA’s 2020-2021 secretary. Although I have not had much higher-level education leadership experience, I have been exposed to an array of opportunities through SNEA where I have been introduced to incredible leaders and advocates of education across the nation. I am looking forward to stepping up to the plate this year by taking on my first official leadership role at UCF and amplifying the voices of the under-represented.

Why is your thesis topic important to you?

I decided to complete my Honors Undergraduate Thesis on the lack of educational support for children with chronic illnesses, given that being a hospital schoolteacher for this unique student population was one of my goals in life. When I began to expose myself to the American educational field, I quickly realized this dream job of mine was essentially non-feasible under the current state of the profession. From my preliminary research, I learned that the reality for educators in this field is roughly 2,000 students [being overseen by] just two educators. This is one of a plethora of indications that these children with chronic illnesses are often forgotten about by policy makers and, at times, advocates for education. Therefore, I decided to complete my thesis on this topic because I believe that one of the biggest issues in the lack of support for this student population is simply the absence of general knowledge that this problem even exists. In my thesis, I seek to expose this issue while calling others to action in better advocating for these children to receive the quality education they deserve. One of the ways I call for action is by introducing the PedsAcademy program and its impact on both aspiring educators and children with chronic illnesses. In doing so, I hope to motivate others into creating a collaborative program between a local university and children’s hospital. Having teacher preparation programs implement courses or trainings on educating these children is important because once these children re-integrate into the classroom setting, their teachers must be able to adequately support them in order to achieve a successful academic re-entry.

What is your long-term goal/future plans? How is the BHC helping you to achieve these goals?

If there is something I have learned as an undergraduate, it is to never get inflexibly invested in the image you create of your future plans, because life is complicated and unpredictable in ways we cannot control. However, I do have some goals I hope to achieve regardless of the obstacles I may face. I would like to celebrate my accomplishments with my loved ones, then come back to my first job as an elementary school teacher. While I teach, I hope to complete my master’s degree at UCF, which is a goal I did not have up until last year. I have the BHC to thank for making graduate studies a more obtainable and feasible goal for me. Through the process of completing my undergraduate thesis, I feel more prepared in beginning my graduate studies within the near future. Additionally, via the opportunities provided through the BHC, I have managed to enhance my resume and professional portfolio with one-of-a-kind experiences I would not have obtained had I not joined the program.

As for my long-term goals, I hope to continue researching my current thesis topic and advocate for these exceptional students. Managing to implement similar programs like PedsAcademy at a national level would be an ambitious yet fulfilling goal. Lastly, I hope to develop a teacher preparation curriculum with a local college or university that addresses educating children with chronic illnesses.

If all things go right, 10 years from now I will most likely be...

…a double Knight on track to pursuing my Ph.D. at the University of Washington. I hope to be a well-traveled, empathetic, and educated individual who is content with a well-balanced, personal life. I hope to continue my educational advocacy and to support others towards achieving equitable education for all students. Moreover, I truly hope to be a more confident and experienced educator working at an educational institution, [working] on the implementation of a teacher preparation curriculum that encompasses instruction for children with chronic illnesses.

What advice do you have for other students who may want to follow a similar path?

My advice for any student wanting to pursue the field of education is to make sure you are in this field for the right reasons. All professions are valuable within their own societal impacts, yet most people are influenced by a teacher during their lifetime. We have the privilege to lead tomorrow’s leaders and ensure they are exemplary members of society in whatever life path they choose. Remember that not every child has a positive at-home life and the repercussions of that may be displayed at school. When you are faced with these trying moments, try to stray away from labeling the student as a “problem child.” Like Josh Shipp said, “every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story” -  wouldn’t it be amazing if you were that child’s caring adult? Consequently, this is a profession that truly requires passionate and open-minded individuals capable of seeing and supporting greatness within others. If you are sure this is the path for you, jump into it headfirst with everything you have. Immerse yourself in student organizations that promote education, make connections with professionals in our field, and learn to value those feelings of concern and doubt because they mean you truly care about being a good teacher for your future students.

What are your favorite hobbies?

I strive to lead a sustainable and more conscious lifestyle in regards to my environmental impact. Living on an island for most of my life, my parents instilled in me values of respect towards the natural world from a young age. Gardens are one of the easiest ways to give back to nature. Not only do they make your home look nicer, but they provide food for pollinators, purify our air, and give you time to appreciate your surroundings, all in all motivating you to better care for them. This past year, I have been trying to perform small, yet meaningful actions to minimize my carbon footprint and the most enjoyable so far has been getting into agriculture. I recognize my privilege in that agriculture is an option for me, while it is the only source of food for others. Therefore, I have grown more socially appreciative for farm workers and treat the process with the respect it deserves. I highly encourage anyone and everyone to try their hand at gardening with what they have - it is a rewarding process.