Mexican immigrant Celia Ayala has devoted 37 years of her life to education, for which she has received numerous awards and honors, but her greatest reward is having been able to transform her life and those of thousands of students.

In 2008, Hispanic Business magazine recognized her as one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in the United States and the Mexican American Opportunity Foundation named her Woman of the Year, while in 2010 Hispanic Outreach Taskforce named her Educator of the Year.

For the past two years, she has been the chief executive officer of Los Angeles Universal Preschool, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the availability of good preschool education in Los Angeles County.

"We help some 11,000 children each year. We have 330 preschools throughout the county, we work with public and private organizations providing the children with preschool programs and giving them a solid base of knowledge that will serve them for the rest of their lives," said Ayala in an interview with Efe.

Born in the Mexican state of Zacatecas 58 years ago, Ayala is the youngest of eight siblings. She was 10 when the family moved to the United States.

She did not speak English, but she devoted herself to learning it, taking no notice of the jokes people made at her expense. When she finished high school, her qualifications and performance opened the doors of 15 prestigious universities to her.

"Eight of them offered me full scholarships to pay for my schooling," said the educator, who holds a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California, a master's in education from California State University, Los Angeles, and a bachelor's degree in sociology and Spanish from USC.

During the course of her career, she has held different posts in both classroom instruction and administration.

"My vocation as an educator discovered me. At first, I wanted to be a lawyer, but to help my mother with the household expenses, I took a job as a teacher's assistant in an elementary school," said Ayala, who married 35 years ago and has two children.

"In that school there was a boy named Juanito. He was in second grade, had just arrived from Mexico and didn't know English or the alphabet. Everyone underestimated him and thought he was stupid. I dedicated myself to helping him three times a week and the boy in six months learned to read, learned English and changed his situation. I felt that a big difference could be made in the lives of people if we give them the opportunity to learn," she said.

"There are thousands of Juanitos and Juanitas who now have better opportunities. Each time I attend the graduation at the university for a student, I'm very moved because education is for me the most important and efficacious key in opening the doors to success. I think that in the end, I really did become a lawyer, defending the rights of children," she said.

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