Gretchen Laue On Combining Activism and Teaching

By Kelly Davis

: Gretchen Laue 
Title: Founder and Director, UC San Diego Professional Development Institute

For more than 15 years, Gretchen Laue has served as the director of UC San Diego’s Professional Development Institute, which provides training and support to teachers throughout California with an emphasis on meeting the needs of English-language learners. It’s a role that Laue — with her background in activism and teaching — is uniquely qualified for. She’s spent years helping rural communities, both as an organizer with United Farm Workers of America and a teacher in Calexico, where she saw firsthand how innovative programs had the potential to transform her students’ lives.
How did you get started in your field?

When I was in eighth grade, I decided I wanted to teach. I took a bit of a roundabout route — I spent nine months traveling abroad, and six months traveling throughout the United States. (Growing up I had never been east of Oregon). I ended up volunteering for six months for the United Farm Workers union. Six months turned into years. I worked on political campaigns across the state, learned a second language and, perhaps most importantly, how to organize — to get things done. When I returned to teaching, 10 years after I had gotten my teaching degree, I decided to give back to those who had given so much to me, and chose to teach in a farmworker community on the border of California and Mexico. 

I loved it, and taught for six years in Calexico. I came to UC San Diego from my middle school classroom when I was recruited by the University of California Office of the President to serve as the statewide director of the California Literature Project. 
What do most enjoy about your job? 
Connecting university resources to communities of need.  
What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the field? 

I didn’t plan on establishing an institute at UC, or working for the University of California for 25 years. I looked for opportunities to learn and grow. There were a number of tough choices along the way, but I followed my heart and tried to get better. I had wonderful mentors. I was able to build strong teams who worked with me and jumped in at times when I thought I was not the best person to do the job, but no one else was available, and the job needed to be done. If I succeeded, great. If I failed, at least I was trying to do the best thing for others. 
If I was going to give anyone advice, it would be to do just that: look for good work and good people, do your best and be willing to take risks.  
How is your field changing? What new skills do people need to stay current?  

The world is changing, and it is changing all our work. Globalization requires that we embrace diversity in order to move forward: Diversity of thought, diversity of community and diversity of expertise. More than ever, our K-12 and university educational institutions need successful students from diverse backgrounds to be leaders in their field and their community. Today’s work world requires a level of openness and flexibility that wasn’t necessary 25 years ago.  
What do you like most about working for Extension?  

The role of Extension is to connect the very best resources of the university to the communities being served. By providing university graduates the opportunity to reconnect with the beliefs, values and resources of the university — and giving communities in need access to the best resources of the university — we do our finest work. As director, if we focus on that goal and do good work, the sky is the limit to what we can achieve. That is what I love about working at Extension. 
Learn more about University of California Professional Development Institute on their website, including services, resources and more.

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