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Herkimer BOCES teaching assistant shares her motivational journey
with elementary graduates from her hometown in Philippines

June 22, 2017

Automotive technology graduates on stage
Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES teaching assistant Jasmin Mortka gave a speech on April 7 via Skype to graduates of the elementary school in the Philippines that she went to. She is the first graduate of the school to teach in the United States.

HERKIMER – Herkimer-Fulton-Hamilton-Otsego BOCES special programs teaching assistant Jasmin Mortka recently was asked to speak to graduates from the elementary school she went to in the Philippines as a way to inspire the students and their parents with her story.

During the speech, she told the graduates how she overcame losing both of her parents, financial struggles and going to college as a parent to go on to become the first person from the elementary school to teach in the United States.

“I just wanted to let them know that anything is possible if you are willing to tackle your education,” she said. “Being poor is not an excuse. There is always a way.”

Through help from Herkimer BOCES staff, Mortka gave the speech via Skype at about 5:30 a.m. on April 7 from her home to graduates of San Jose Elementary School in San Miguel, a municipality in the province of Bulacan in the Philippines.

As she gave the speech to 12- and 13-year-old children and their parents via Skype, she could see herself on her computer screen as well as the large crowd gathered in an outdoor-concert-like setting at the elementary school.

“I looked at their faces,” she said. “There were smiles, and there were tears.”

Reflecting on her journey in the context of now working at Herkimer BOCES, Mortka also brought herself to tears.

“I found a place of work where I am not only working. I found a family,” she said, fighting off the tears. “It’s very seldom you will find it in a work environment – to find people who will support you. It’s full support.”

Her tears quickly turned to laughter as she compared the difference she feels between working at Herkimer BOCES and somewhere else to the difference between meeting a friend and someone you want to marry.

“I don’t want to just be your friend, BOCES, I want to be part of you,” she said, laughing. “Marry me, BOCES.”

‘One step up’

While growing up in the Philippines, Mortka’s blue and white school uniforms were never new. She received the uniforms from cousins and her shoes from other relatives or her father’s friends.

Mortka lost her mother at the age of 10. One of eight children, she and her siblings had to take on parental tasks – learning how to cook and wash clothes at an early age. She graduated from San Jose Elementary School after completing “grade six” in 1973.

She went to high school from the 1973-74 school year through the 1976-77 school year, as her father tried to support their family.

The distance from her house to the high school stretched about as far as from Herkimer BOCES in East Herkimer to Little Falls. Her allowance of $2 per month had to be saved for lunch, school supplies and other basic needs, so taking a taxi wasn’t an option, and she had to walk every day regardless of the weather.

Mortka completed high school, but at the age of 19, she became an orphan, as she lost her father as well.
In the following years, she became a parent herself.

At one point, she decided she wanted to become a teacher. She wrote down goals of going to college for teaching in 1990 and completing college in 1994.

“I wanted to use my talents and my skills that would help me put my family one step up,” she said.

‘I made it’

A few years after she put her goals in writing, it was 1994, and she was graduating from St. Paul College, which is now St. Paul University, in San Miguel.

Despite the challenges of deciding to go to college after already becoming a parent, she accomplished the feat.

That was one reason administrators from her elementary school wanted both the elementary graduates and their parents to hear her story, she said.

“What they wanted to show the kids and show the parents is how I brought myself up step-by-step,” she said. “They said they’re proud of me and proud I am from their elementary school.”

They wanted parents to know they are young enough and capable enough to still take on a new challenge, she said, and she shared that message in her speech.

“It’s not too late,” she said. “I did it. I made it.”

She worked at a general store while in college and also received some financial assistance from siblings – promising them that if they helped her, she wouldn’t fail any courses. She went to school in the summer as well.

During college, her determination was straight forward and she became much more goal oriented. She believes that being positive and putting your goals out into the universe makes a difference.

“Aim big, dream big,” she said.

‘I never stop’

Mortka worked in public and private schools in San Miguel, but when she was ranked No. 2 for a job she wanted and saw the top- and third-ranked people receive jobs, she stuck to another goal she had written down: that she would move wherever she needed to in order to obtain a teaching job that would help her family.

After applying to become an English teacher in Bangkok, Thailand, she got the job. She moved there and worked there for six years.

As she talked about her employment efforts, she said the way she thinks about it is that if someone were to kick one of her legs, she would put the other leg out.

“It’s a matter of trying,” she said. “That’s my philosophy. I never stop.”

She later moved to the United States and was living in Mohawk, when she started substitute teaching at Herkimer BOCES, not far away in Herkimer, in 2002.

At one point after moving to the United States, someone suggested to her that she would be eligible to go to social services to receive food stamps. While in line, she looked at her daughter and asked if this was why they moved to the United States and decided it wasn’t. She wanted to help, not benefit from the government, so she left and said that any help that would have went to her could go to the next person in line instead.

‘This is real’

Mortka started working full-time at Herkimer BOCES in 2003 as a special programs teaching assistant. Her teaching qualifications from the Philippines were able to carry over.

She has worked at Herkimer BOCES ever since and plans to stay at Herkimer BOCES until she retires.

“I’ve learned so many skills,” she said. “I learn a lot, and I will keep working and working because I know this is a place where I am not only working. At the same time, every single day, I learn so many things, and I am so grateful and appreciative about that.”

She said she feels relaxed and at home at Herkimer BOCES.

“Every morning, I want to go to school. I want to go to work,” she said. “If you have a feeling like that, it means you like it, doesn’t it?”

When she stays at work late for Open House, the Special Programs Prom or other events, she does it without hesitation.

“It’s all about the kids,” she said. “I look forward to it every day. I’m here every day.”

If some students say they like a teacher, you might think they’re just trying to get in a teacher’s good graces, she said, but she doesn’t feel that’s the case when young children with disabilities in her classes say they love her.

“I’m looking at it like, ‘This is real,’” she said.

Making use of resources

Mortka isn’t only grateful for the opportunity to work at Herkimer BOCES and receive professional development and support. She also is appreciative of the resources that are available, and she has taken some of her sentiments from the Philippines and applied them at BOCES.

She grew up saving her notebook from year to year and re-using pieces of paper that were written on for other purposes. Whenever she saw anyone in the United States write a couple words on a piece of paper and later just throw it out, it was initially shocking to her.

Similarly, she noticed that the Special Programs Prom used paper decorations that couldn’t be used again the next year. She recommended to Herkimer BOCES Director of Academic Services Roberta Matthews that fabric decorations be purchased instead. The change was made, and now the fabric decorations are folded up and saved from year to year.

Mortka also wanted to increase recycling, so she took an idea for a stainless steel recycling unit for the cafeteria to Herkimer BOCES special education teacher Georgia Waite, and the two of them worked to get Herkimer BOCES to put in the recycling unit, which Mortka believes will continue her recycling legacy even after her eventual retirement.

“She’s always thinking about ways to do things better and more efficient,” Matthews said. “And more beautiful – because she’s very talented. She can see things that most people can’t. Just looking at a piece of cloth, she can turn it into a flower, when most of us probably would just throw it out.”

Herkimer BOCES also will be building upon the established recycling efforts this summer as conservation instructor William Carpenter helps set up a compost bin. The results will be used to help a garden at BOCES, and the food grown in the garden will be used by the culinary hospitality program – forming a circle of recycling, Matthews said.

‘Shocked and happy’

When San Jose Elementary School administrators asked Mortka to speak at their graduation this year, it was actually the fifth time they have asked her. She, however, was never able to do the speech due to the challenges of traveling there and not wanting to miss work.

Being asked to give the speech was very humbling, she said.

“To be honest with you, I was shocked,” she said. “I was shocked and happy.”

This year, the idea came up of her giving the speech via Skype and sending a video as backup in case the Skype connection didn’t work live.

“I said, ‘I think this time it’s going to work,’” she said.

Mortka approached Matthews and Herkimer BOCES Career and Technical Education Principal Kathy Fox about the idea, and they were very supportive, she said.

Reading an email at the time from Fox about what an honor it is for Herkimer BOCES to have a teacher asked to give the speech and from Matthews saying it will be a very special event made her emotional, she said.

“They were really happy about it for me,” she said.

Fox remembers telling Mortka that Herkimer BOCES would “absolutely” support her request.

“I thought it would be great to be able to connect her with technology right from here,” Fox said. “It was a perfect opportunity to share her story.”

Matthews also said she was pleased to hear that Jasmin would be able to share her story with elementary graduates in the Philippines.

“Jasmin is a very hard worker,” Matthews said. “If she was able to impart in students the fact that an excellent work ethic coupled with dedication can really take you a long way, I think that’s great.”

Matthews said Mortka overcame many struggles to provide a better life for her family.

“I can’t imagine going across the world and starting a whole new life and becoming a teaching assistant in a school,” Matthews said. “I admire her courage and work ethic. She’s a wonderful addition to our BOCES.”

‘You need to do it’

After Mortka talked with Matthews and Fox, Herkimer BOCES visual communications media arts instructor Melinda Maycock and information technology department staff Brian Keeler and Jason Riesel helped record a video of Mortka telling her story from the broadcasting studio at Herkimer BOCES and set up Skype for her.

“I am so thankful, and I really appreciate every person who helped me with this,” she said.

Her only concern was that she is a private person, so it would feel odd for her to talk to a large crowd. Organizers from the elementary school told her that they wanted the graduates to learn from her story, and she wanted to help with that goal.

The video was sent ahead of time, and faculty and staff at the elementary school received it prior to graduation day. It was also on hand as backup for the graduation, but the Skype connection worked.

Mortka logged in at about 4 a.m. our time from her home to watch the graduation ceremony, which was starting at 4 p.m. in the Philippines. When she started her speech about an hour and a half later, she accidentally began by saying “good morning” before correcting it to “good evening.”

She told the 53rd class of graduates from the elementary school that high school and college would be more challenging, but that they could do it by going to school every day and doing their homework. She recommended they go to college – with free public college available in the Philippines starting this year.

Mortka said in her speech that although working in the United States isn’t easy and is competitive, it is also attainable. She encouraged the students to work hard, grow, find their special talent and be unique.

“I want you to do it because you need to do it,” she said to graduates. “If I did it, you can do it. Everyone can do it.”

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