Anthropology professor overcomes dyslexia


Hanging with students—Christine Sepulveda with Edmund Garcia at the ELAC 2017 graduation. Garcia died on Dec. 20. Courtesy of Christine Sepulveda

By Vicky Nguyen

Christine Sepulveda sometimes puts the wrong address into her GPS. She will enter the wrong numbers, causing her and her husband to drive around in circles.

When she is teaching her anthropology classes at East Los Angeles College, she mumbles to herself the words and numbers as she writes problems on the board. If she is sleepy or stressed out, she says things backward.

“I might say something like, ‘Egg cells in males and sperm cells in females,’ and I’ll realize as it’s coming out and everybody is laughing that I switched it,” Sepulveda said.

Sepulveda has dyslexia, a learning disorder that makes reading difficult. People with dyslexia read slower than most people and will sometimes mix up words or letters. In Sepulveda’s case, she has struggled with math due to her tendency to switch numbers around.

Jonathan Salas first met Sepulveda when he took her Anthropology 101 class in spring 2017 and has since taken all of Sepulveda’s anthropology courses. He works close with her as the president of ELAC’S Anthropology Club.

“[Her dyslexia is] so, so slight that I think the only way that you would know it’s there is by her telling you. It just seems like a genuine mistake that anyone would make on a daily basis,” Salas said.

Sepulveda’s dyslexia went unrecognized until she was in her 30s.

She grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn in the ‘80s where she was the youngest of eight children.

“It was easy to get lost in the shuffle,” Sepulveda said. “Dinners were always loud and noisy. There was always commotion in the house. You had to speak quickly. You had to be loud to be heard in a group like that.”

Almost her entire primary and secondary education was done at private catholic schools, where she said most of the nuns who taught her probably weren’t qualified to teach, let alone recognize learning disabilities.

When she was 18, she withdrew from community college in the middle of her second semester to work after her father passed away.

When she returned to school at Santa Ana Community College in her 30s, she was required to take math placement tests, but failed both the intermediate and entry level math. She was instructed to take three no-credit level math courses.

It wasn’t until she was taking the second of the three courses, that someone would notice her learning disorder. In the middle of class one night, her professor, Scott Sakamoto, put his hand on her shoulder and asked her to come to his office hours. When she met with Sakamoto after class, he told her she had a learning disorder.

“It was like the lightbulb went on,” Sepulveda said.

Once her learning disorder was confirmed with testing, a huge burden was lifted from her shoulders. Sepulveda said that having an instructor like Sakamoto was life-changing for her. For a time, she made a lot of money as a legal assistant, but she changed her focus to becoming a teacher.

“I walked away from all that money and the benefits because I really wanted to make the difference in someone else’s life. I’m happy, I’m fulfilled, and I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Sepulveda said.

Sepulveda makes it a point to be open with her students about her learning disorder, letting them know that it is alright to have a disorder.

“She has this ability to make the entire class feel like a home barbeque,” Salas said.

Salas describes her as sensitive to students’ needs, often going out of her way to help them.

When a handicap desk went missing from the classroom one day, Sepulveda took it upon herself to find it, bring it back, and make sure that it would not be moved again.

“You never know if someone is learning disabled and whether they’re aware of it or not,” Sepulveda said.

“We [teachers] have the power to positively impact students like Scott Sakamoto, and on your worst days you have to have presence of mind to be the best for your students. We have to recognize our responsibility there. It’s so important the impact that we have on students’ lives, good or bad.”

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