Esteban Vela, who has earned one of Yakima Valley College's first Bachelor of Applied Science in Teacher Education (BAS-TE)degrees, poses for a portrait at Franklin Park on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Yakima, Wash.

After graduating from Wapato High School in 2010, Esteban Vela wasn’t sure about a career or college. So he tried different jobs and enrolled in some classes.

It took a few years, but his path became clear in 2014, when Vela began working at Hoover Elementary School in Yakima as the ELL (English Language Learners) paraeducator for kindergarten through fifth grade.

“Day one, I fell in love with my job,” Vela said.

On Friday, June 19, Vela will be among the first graduates of the Bachelor of Applied Science in Teacher Education (BAS-TE) degree program at Yakima Valley College. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the college plans a virtual celebration at 7 p.m. It will be live on the college’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, as well as YCTV Channel 192 on Charter cable.

“It’s really in-depth on what you need to know as a teacher,” Vela said of the program. He also appreciated the affordable tuition and flexible class schedule, which allowed him to keep working full time at Hoover until his student teaching began last fall.

“They were very understanding,” he said.

Vela is close to his immediate and extended family, so time with them is important. He is the son of Patty and Mario Vela of Wapato and has an older brother, Mario Vela Jr. of Yakima, and a younger sister, Magdalena Pruenda of Moses Lake.

A self-described “Disney nerd,” Vela is trying to convince his parents to take him to Disney World as a graduation gift. “They want to throw me a parade,” he said. “I’m just happy I’m done. I did it.”

The BAS-TE program offers many options leading to teacher certification in K-8 schools with optional endorsements for English Language Learner and Early Childhood Education, according to program information. It’s a four-year program; Vela started as an AA degree student at YVC.

He is applying for K-5 jobs in the Yakima Valley because he wants to stay here, for several reasons. “I do believe that we need more male teachers. A lot of schools need that male figure,” he said.

Growing up, Vela wanted to be a marine biologist. Several relatives are teachers, but he never considered it as a career option.

Like many other students, he found school challenging at times, but had some supportive teachers, including Kirsten Anderson, his English teacher in high school; and his fifth- and fourth-grade teachers at Adams Elementary School, Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Beaudry.

“At least two or three teachers inspired me to stay in school. I hear their voices still today,” Vela said.

He wants to do the same by encouraging his students to believe in themselves and stay focused on their goals. He shared a popular mantra he likes and passes on to others: “Si crees en ti, ni el cielo sera tu limite — if you believe in yourself, not even the sky will be the limit.”

Last fall, Vela began student teaching in second grade at Moxee Elementary School under the guidance of mentor teachers Michele Gress and Jessica Chase. Vela also had the support of Principal Elizabeth Hockens and Antoniette Hull, the BAS-TE field supervisor.

After observing for two weeks, Vela began getting an education on the job.

“I’ve learned classroom management, how to create stronger lesson plans” by making lessons more relatable, Vela said. “You always have to find that relatable something subject — soccer, Barbie dolls.

“You don’t want to be boring. Don’t teach out of the book,” he added.

As he honed those skills, Vela overcame unexpected challenges as the coronavirus pandemic tested even the most veteran teachers.

“We were doing so well with our students,” he said. “But we figured it out. It’s been a learning experience for sure. It will be interesting for the fall, when I have to do it alone.”

Vela’s background as a paraeducator helped, but it’s clear he was meant to be a teacher, Gress said. She’s been at Moxee — which she attended as a child — since 1990 and is in her 34th year of teaching.

“Teaching is definitely his passion; that is what he’s meant to do,” she said. “He’s amazing with the kids, has great discipline and rapport with them. He gets it. ... He’s going to be a great fit wherever he gets a job.”

Having been at Moxee Elementary since school began last fall ensured that Vela still got plenty of time helping lead a classroom before schools were closed, said Chase, who is in her sixth year teaching second grade there. She’s been a teacher for 15 years.

“It takes a lot of sacrifice from the candidates. They’re working full time in the classroom and they’re students on top of that,” she said. “The experience is priceless. Wherever they go to be hired as full-time teachers, they’re lucky to get them.”

Along with all those extra skills gained because of the pandemic, Vela and his fellow teaching students learned flexibility this year, Chase added. “You can make a plan and nothing says it’s going to go as planned,” she said.

Vela would like to start a master’s degree program in the fall, if possible, to enhance his teaching knowledge and possibly go into school administration and become a principal. He’s still undecided where, but “my life goal is to be a Husky,” so the University of Washington is his first choice.

That’s the future. For now, Vela is excited to become a teacher.

“I’m happy this program opened up. It gave me such an opportunity. I’ll be thankful the rest of my life,” he said.