For nearly 15 years, the “Doctora,” as she’s frequently called by Samohi students, has walked the halls of the local high school, where she has served as a teacher and club adviser to nearly every Latinx club ever created on-campus. But former students said it’s Mireles-Toumayan’s influence outside of the classroom that makes her one of the most caring educators they’ve come to know.

Local Santa Monica High School teacher Guadalupe Mireles-Toumayan declined an opportunity to teach at Harvard University in order to have a greater impact right here in her own community.

For nearly 15 years, the “Doctora,” as she’s frequently called by Samohi students, has walked the halls of the local high school, where she has served as a teacher and club adviser to nearly every Latinx club ever created on-campus. But former students said it’s Mireles-Toumayan’s influence outside of the classroom that makes her one of the most caring educators they’ve come to know.

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Mireles-Toumayan remembers working the fields of her small family farm before her father passed away when she was only 6-years-old.

“I remember my mother said we couldn’t make it any more in a small town,” Mireles-Toumayan said in an interview this summer.

So, Estela Jara, a single mother of four young girls, packed up her belongings to move to Mexico City, “and it was like coming to the U.S. It was a whole new shift — the language barrier, the way of living, the classism,” the Doctora said, detailing it as the place where everything changed for her.

“I guess because I was young, I adjusted,” Mireles-Toumayan said. “I realized the only way I could break away from the (negative stereotyping) was education,” which is a message she has preached to herself and students since she first saw a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln as a young girl. “Everything always seemed different for me because, in the city, I was the girl from the ranch. But in the States, I was the girl from Mexico, so no matter where I went, I was always looked down on… But once I became part of this ‘special group of educated students’ then everything changed for me. And the same thing happened here in this country.”

A True Survivor

A young Guadalupe would adjust to city life well, even though she was always homesick for Jalisco. But another seismic shift would occur in her life when she was about to graduate from university.

On Sept. 19, 1985, Mireles-Toumayan remembers, “We didn’t have hot water and it was so cold in the morning — I was washing everything so slow and my mother was yelling that I’m going to miss the bus.”

After arriving at her college campus, which featured beautiful glass buildings, Mireles-Toumayan said she was sprinting across the field to her Algebra class when she suddenly thought she was about to faint.

“The floor was moving, and I thought I was feeling dizzy because I was rushing so hard,” she said. “But then I see trailers that are rocking side-to-side and I realize it’s not me. I look up,” and the building she was running to collapsed on top of itself.

“Glass was all over the place. I didn’t know what was going on. I just saw dust and, honestly, thought it was a bomb and somebody declared war,” Mireles-Toumayan said.

True to her helpful nature, the teenager rushed into the debris to help as many people as she could. “I wasn’t going to run away! I went to help my classmates,” Mireles-Toumayan said when asked why she didn’t rush away from a potentially deadly scene.

As she described the explosions and the destructive toll resulting from what remains one of Mexico City’s deadliest natural disasters ever, Mireles-Toumayan said it took days for her to walk back home. “I didn’t know if my family was alive,” and with no working phone, it would be nearly four months before a sister living in the United States discovered the rest of her family wasn’t dead as she initially believed.

“That really changed the trajectory of my life,” Mireles-Toumayan said. “There was no technology. Everything was paper, and all of that was gone. So, they wanted us to restart since everybody was ‘almost ready to graduate.’ And I get it but it was unfair.”

But she couldn’t complain too much since she was a survivor. However, she did learn to take life seriously and always welcome an opportunity. As Lincoln said, “I will prepare and some day my chance will come.”

Coming to America

Mireles-Toumayan’s older sister would soon invite her to come to America to learn English, which would afford her more opportunities when she returned to Mexico. “She said I didn’t have to stay, but it’d help me to become bilingual.”

After a few adventures in Latin America, which she will proudly recount if asked, Mireles-Toumayan found herself attending Venice High classes before she would head to Santa Monica College for her associate’s degree in the 1990s.

It would take a few years for the doctora to graduate from the local junior college, she said, adding, “I always laugh when students tell me they’ve been at school for 3 or 4 years. I tell them not to ask me how long I was there.”

And while education was indeed inviting new opportunities into her life that were not available before, Mireles-Toumayan said she would continue to face discrimination throughout her studies, even when she was eventually accepted to study at Harvard. But the longtime educator will be the first to tell you she’s okay with not being everybody’s “cup of tea.”

Mireles-Toumayan will be the first to tell you she’s okay with not being everybody’s “cup of tea.”

In 2014, on a professional development outing during Spring Break, Mireles-Toumayan encountered a number of teachers from all across the country who were complaining about how Latinx parents aren’t involved enough in their children’s education. Mireles said she tried to explain how it’s a cultural phenomenon because, in Latin America, parents are only there to make sure a child is listening to the teacher. “It’d be disrespectful to question you as the teacher and expert as to why my kid has an F,” she said.

The teachers refused to hear about her personal experiences, though and said to come back when she’s a doctor with statistics to back up her claims.

“I always tell my students, don’t let (negativity) get to you. Let them underestimate you because if you’re educated, nobody can take that away,” Mireles-Toumayan said, but this incident made her blood boil, so she immediately went home and started googling what’s the easiest way to get your doctorate.

While studying for her credential and Master’s program at CSU Northridge, Mireles-Toumayan met her future dissertation chair and role model Dr. Mira Pak, who happened to be a former Samohi teacher.

“I learned from her to be proud of who you are because that’s what gives you strength,” Mireles-Toumayan said. “It’s like a tree or a plant. The more roots you have when you transplant it, the more it will thrive in a new environment.”

Mireles-Toumayan said CSUN was an institution that always sought to support her, so she reached out Pak for information on a doctorate degree.

“I said, ‘You might not remember me but you inspired me and believed in me and made me feel strong and proud of my heritage,’” Mireles-Toumayan said. And she immediately picked up the phone and said it’s done.

Back then, Mireles-Toumayan said she had no idea Pak was a graduate of Harvard, but she was soon inspired to head to Cambridge to receive an education. After all, her husband Samuel was from Massachusetts and her sister-in-law Sylvia still lived in the area.

During her studies to receive a Doctoral in Education at CSUN, Mireles Toumayan stayed at her sister-in-law’s while she completed extra units over the summer. She remembers crying, feeling like she wasn’t articulate enough and thinking she didn’t belong, but the feelings were obviously unwarranted as Mireles-Toumayan would soon be offered a position to teach a professional development class of her own.

But she said no.

“I feel so connected with this community,” Mireles-Toumayan said, “And I feel that I owe my students. Who is going to represent them if I am gone?”

Shortly after declining the opportunity, the doctora would complete her doctorate requirements and publish a dissertation detailing teachers’ experiences with Latino parents.

To make sure every teacher at the professional development meeting who doubted her reasoning for the supposed lax attitude held by Latinx parents, Mireles-Toumayan made the document public so they could all read it. She also made sure to call out the “gatekeepers” who tried to dissuade her from getting her degree.

Former students said it’s Mireles-Toumayan’s influence outside of the classroom that makes her one of the most caring educators they’ve come to know.

Since 2006, Mireles-Toumayan has found ways to engage almost every student who enters her Spanish class at Samohi by setting up mini-mercados in class, teaching dances or simply providing breakfast at the beginning of the day to ensure children aren’t going hungry.

“I stay on the curriculum but I make it fun for them. I connect it to their lives, and they can bring their own experiences into the classroom and we can learn from that too,” she said.

Actions like these have resonated with Rebecca Villegas since they first met.

“My experience over the years with Dr. Mireles-Toumayan has been extraordinary,” Villegas said earlier this month, explaining how the two have worked together nearly every day since the minute they met. “With the same goals and vision for the students, Dr. Mireles-toumayan has provided the students with advice and guidance when they were feeling depressed, down, or when they were in some kind of trouble. She patiently listened to their concerns and tutored them on her own time, and she even fed them when they were hungry… All the work and passion from Dr. Mireles-Toumayan has inspired me to continue to mentor and volunteer with students who are under her guidance at Samohi.”

In homage to Selena, Samohi parents often say Mireles-Toumayan treats their children like they’re her flowers and they often call the local teacher an icon whose impact on the students is comparable to the famous singer.

Students cried earlier in the year at a Hispanic Heritage celebration when they talked about the positive influence Mireles-Toumayan has had in the community. Emotions ran high again when graduating seniors said their farewell to the doctora at a ceremony that was organized by Mireles-Toumayan.

“The glory is not for me. It’s for the kids. They just need a little help, some space and they’ll flourish,” she said. “As an educator, I’m amazed to see my students are out there becoming doctors themselves and writing books. I’m completely proud to be a role model for these kids.”

brennon@smdp.com