Alumn Spotlight: Kristi Relaz

WIU Alumni Kristi Relaz is the Coordinator for the Career & College Readiness Program at Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park, Chicago. Their mission is “to assist high school youth in navigating their path toward a meaningful future through creative pursuit of their unique personal, academic, and employment goals.” The duties are ever-changing and no day is the same. They do everything from working one-on-one with students, designing and presenting workshops to groups, collaborating with other organizations and businesses in the community, and planning and going on college visits and leadership retreats, just to name a few.

Kristi Relaz with some of the girls in her program

When asked about her experience working with high school students Relaz answered,

“I love working with high school students because I belly laugh every day. They’re so sweet and kind and inherently good and imaginative. And sometimes you can catch them at a pivotal time and say something that you can visibly see resonate, and that’s a beautiful feeling to have at work.”

And what about surprises?

“There have been lots of surprises. I would say at least one eye raiser a week, but you have to improvise. Sometimes you know what the right thing to do is, and other times you just really hope that it was the best thing to do.  One of the biggest surprises for me is hearing my mother’s voice in my own during conversations with youth. Many times after a youth leaves the office, I think, ‘Wow, I just sounded a lot like my mom,’ which is a good thing.”

Upon graduating from WIU, Relaz traveled to Costa Rica and earned her TEFL/TESOL certification to teach English as a Second Language. She taught ESL in both Costa Rica and Chicago. Two years after teaching in Costa Rica, she transitioned to the Program Coordinator for a long-term project of the ALIARSE Foundation- English Volunteers for Change. There, Relaz also wrote and edited vacation home rental descriptions for an online travel agency; Relaz describes the duty as, “very weird and cool.”

Returning to Chicago, Relaz volunteered as an advocate with LIFT and worked for the Member Education & Training Center at SEIU. She is now serving as the Program Coordinator for Career and College Readiness with HACC.

Her very first job was at a restaurant and she has since worked at a number of restaurants, still doing so on Saturday nights.

Because many of Relaz’s students are from other countries and do not know English as a first language, she has been able to include English language classes and language acquisition experiences to their goal plans in an effective way due to her experience teaching ESL.

Majoring in Spanish, Relaz translated Spanish literature into English, mainly poems, for some of her assignments and classes. She now uses this to better read and interpret Spanish and Latin American Literature. “I can read Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his own language, and also flow through The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao with ease, without having to look up translations for anything. However, it honestly didn’t affect me much as an English student, but, it did impact me as a WIU student because it afforded me the confidence to travel. I studied abroad in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico with my Spanish program which was a life-changing experience.”

Her second major in Spanish impacted her most after studying abroad/graduation. Although she was able to read and write very well in Spanish after graduating, she still couldn’t speak it as well as she wanted.  So, with the encouragement of a chef from Guadalajara whom she worked with for years, she decided to travel to Costa Rica to live and work. Relaz says, “I was still working at the same restaurant that I started working at when I was 14, and I told him that I was considering going back to Mexico to teach English. He said, ‘You’ve already been to Mexico. If you’re going to teach somewhere, go to Costa Rica.’”

On being an English major and how it has impacted her choices, says Relaz, “It has infinitely informed my values and worldview, which has determined my career choices. It has been a hugely positive influence on my personal and professional life. I can visualize and articulate the Domino Effect from the moment I took Intro to Literary studies with Dr. Banash, until now. And I’m very content.”

Leaving and returning to the United States, Relaz found that culture shock is a very real thing. She describes it as an emotional roller coaster; from happy to sad, from confident to insecure. “It’s like extreme frequencies, but you gradually level-off and realize you’re good to go.”

Relaz recalls her favorite memory from her time at Western: “One class first semester of sophomore year, we cut and pasted John Barthes ‘A Frame Tale’. It was like a lightbulb went off. I realized how three-dimensional literature was and how deeply words influence thoughts and behavior; thus, tangible, three dimensional affects. I thought that literature was like water; endless, timeless, boundless, and impossible to over-analyze or signify one shape.  I declared English Literature and Language my primary major that semester.”

The biggest lesson Relaz learned while attending Western was to be honest with herself and others. She took chances, and did the things that she feared the most. Remaining honest and true gave her the reassurance that peer and professor reactions would be genuine.

Relaz has some advice for those WIU seniors soon-to-be English grads, “Do something fun, wild, crazy, out of character, and impulsive after you graduate. Don’t apologize for it. Anyone with an English degree is allowed and a little expected. I believe it will help prevent you from later settling for a decent-paying job with good benefits that doesn’t inspire or challenge you.”