Former foster child, now mother of 3, achieves her goal of becoming a teacher
“Are you sure you want to do this? If you failed once, you’ll probably fail again.
And with that, Jeanette Marie Reynoso received some of the worst advice ever given by a college counselor. Reynoso was shocked. She thought the indifference and flippant cruelty she had encountered in her youth was behind her. But she dried her tears, picked herself up, and enrolled in Seminole State College, the first step on a path that led her to UCF and halfway to realizing a dream of a lifetime.
“I’ve wanted to be a teacher all my life,” says Reynoso. “I was that kid who asked for a blackboard for Christmas and I taught my stuffed animals. When my cousins arrived, I made them worksheets on notebook paper.
But her own experience with school — and with life — started off rough. As a young girl growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, Reynoso never knew her father. Then, when she was 12, her mother dropped her off at a sleepover and never came back. Reynoso’s sixth-grade reading teacher helped her get into foster care, but the group home she ended up in didn’t allow her to go to school. A teacher came regularly, but the lessons were basic and unstructured.
“I read hundreds of books because we weren’t allowed to watch TV,” Reynoso says. “That’s really where my love of reading started.”
Reynoso left this establishment at age 14 and was eventually able to attend high school. But having gone so long without formal education, she struggled. Reynoso dropped out a year later and started working full time. Then, when she turned 18, she aged out of the foster care system.
“The director of the group home said, ‘The state won’t pay for you to stay here anymore,’ and I asked him what I was supposed to do,” Reynoso said. “She said ‘A lot of people go to college’ and I said ‘OK, I guess I will.'”
Reynoso scored well on the SATs and was accepted to all five colleges she applied to. She moved to Fairleigh Dickinson College because it was just around the corner from her group home. For the first time in years, Reynoso felt hope, pride and a sense that perhaps the worst was behind her. But those positive thoughts were dashed on the day of moving into middle school.
“I got there and everything was out of my league,” says Reynoso. “Everyone was there with their parents, moving into the dorm, and I showed up alone with a black plastic bag. I had the clothes I took from my group home and that was it. I just remember crying my eyes out. It was August and I only arrived in October before leaving.
After his false start in college, Reynoso spent a year volunteering for AmeriCorps, an experience that reignited his passion for teaching.
“My year at AmeriCorps was spent in one of the toughest school districts in New Jersey, and it was the most transformative year of my life,” says Reynoso. “I wrote an after-school literacy program for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. I knew from that moment that I really wanted to work with underprivileged children.
Soon after, Reynoso met Miguel, the man who would become her husband. Suddenly she went from having no family to being embraced by a huge one.
“When I was in the foster care system, I had no family,” Reynoso says. “When my husband and I met, I said, ‘Tell me about your family,’ and he said, ‘Well, I have 12 aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins.'”
Most of her husband’s family lived in Florida, so they decided to move to the Orlando area. After having three children, Reynoso decided to return to school to become a teacher. She started inquiring at local colleges, which led to this discouraging interaction with a school counselor.
“I left that meeting in tears. I said to myself, ‘what was I thinking? I’m supposed to be a stay-at-home mom,” Reynoso says. “My husband said, ‘Don’t let that one person dictate your future.’ ”
With the support of her husband, she enrolled in Seminole State College and immediately set out to prove the counselor wrong. Reynoso earned A’s throughout his time at SSC and finished with a 4.0 GPA, while balancing his work in the classroom with his responsibilities at home.
After earning his associate degree, Reynoso took advantage of the Direct Connect program to further his education at UCF. At first, the transition was overwhelming.
“The first time I set foot on campus, in January 2020, I remember thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” Reynoso says. “There were flyers everywhere for different clubs and events and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I go to bed at nine. How am I going to fit in here?
However, it didn’t take long for Reynoso to settle in and start taking advantage of some of the programs UCF offers to support students.
“I saw a flyer that said ‘Hike the Knight Trail.’ If you took several different steps, such as meeting with an academic advisor, attending two workshops, and meeting with SARC (the University Student Resource Center), you would get a $500 scholarship,” Reynoso explains. I ended up applying for the McNair Scholars. It was a catalyst for all these really cool things I was able to do.
Then came COVID. Ironically, some of the same pandemic-induced changes that caused many students to struggle actually helped Reynoso excel.
“Moving classes online has allowed me to be very active and participate in things where I couldn’t have been on campus in person,” says Reynoso. “Some get-togethers were at six in the evening when I was cooking dinner for my family. But I could zoom in while making a salad. In this case, the technology really helped me feel included and to feel like I belong.”
Fast forward a few years and Reynoso has excelled in pursuing his primary education degree. She participated in the Phillips Academy Institute for Recruitment of Teachers (IRT) summer program, which prepares future educators from diverse backgrounds to pursue higher education. Last summer, Reynoso also studied virtually at Vanderbilt University as part of the Leadership Alliance summer research program.
In addition to all of his other responsibilities at school and at home, Reynoso finds time to volunteer, helping underprivileged students through a number of UCF programs, including Saturday Reading Camps and the university’s bookmobile initiative, which gives free books to children who don’t have them. t have access to a library. Reynoso also volunteers on an ongoing basis at the ACE (Academic Center of Excellence) school in the Parramore neighborhood of Orlando.
All of this field experience has prepared Reynoso well for her current role as a full-time student teacher at Bentley Elementary School in Seminole County.
“When it was time for me to be in my own classroom, I was ready,” she says.
About to graduate and turn 36, she’s still not done proving that old counselor wrong. Reynoso was recently accepted into UCF’s master’s program for elementary education. From there, she hopes to become a “triple knight,” earning her doctorate in the same subject. Ultimately, Reynoso wants to become a school district superintendent, a position that will allow her to exercise her love of teaching while “passing on” some of the lessons she’s learned over years of involvement in education and activism.
Her message to other parents is to not shy away from filling their days in pursuit of their dreams.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about going to college is that there comes a time when you’re too old to do it,” Reynoso says. “It’s not easy juggling babysitting and picking up and cooking meals and all that other stuff. But you can do it. School is for you, and you can join clubs and meet people and be a part of things.
“I’m so glad I took the leap,” she says. “Being a Knight has really changed my life.”