Alumni Spotlight: Helena Ribeiro ('00)

“I never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I really wanted to not be a teacher,” said tenured Seattle Central English professor Helena Ribeiro ('00).

Now also serving as the faculty union president for the district, Ribeiro first found her passion for education as a student at Seattle Central College in 1999. Her return to the institution as a faculty member 15 years later marks a full circle moment in her life, a journey she never anticipated but now deeply cherishes.

Ribeiro and her family permanently relocated to the United States from Brazil when she was seven years old. With one parent in university research and the other in education, Ribeiro knew from a young age that education was an expectation in her home.

I tell my students this periodically — I failed English 101 four times and English 102 three times.

Her dad’s work eventually took Ribeiro to the University of Arizona, where she reluctantly enrolled once she graduated high school. Very quickly, Ribeiro realized it wasn’t the right fit.

Ribeiro felt their overall approach to education wasn't congruent with her own values and learning style. She also cited the difficult symptoms of undertreated ADHD, in which her academic struggles were attributed to a “lack of motivation” rather than “a lack of understanding of how [she] could be successful.” She ultimately decided to leave college.

“I tell my students this periodically — I failed English 101 four times and English 102 three times,” Ribeiro shared. “I wanted it so bad, but I couldn't figure out why I was struggling.”

Ribeiro eventually headed to Seattle “as one did in the 90s,” where several of her friends were living at the time. She remembers her enrollment at Seattle Central as markedly incidental — she was walking down Broadway one day in 1999, wandered into the college, and signed up on a whim.

In her first quarter at Central, Ribeiro encountered a radically different approach to education. “The kind of information we were getting — and how we were expected to process it — was so different from any classroom I'd been in before,” she recalled. “It blew my mind.”

Suddenly, school wasn’t as difficult for Ribeiro — it was exciting and empowering. “I went from not being able to do my two classes and failing out to managing a 15-hour credit load on top of a 40-hour-a-week job,” Ribeiro explained. “I was able to just crush it and I loved it.”

With her newfound confidence and perspective on education, Ribeiro used her Seattle Central credits and good grades to transfer back to the University of Arizona to finish up her bachelor’s degree in English.

Ribeiro wasn’t totally sure what she wanted to do after graduation. Several of her UofA English professors suggested graduate school, and she thought, why not?

It was a real unicorn job. I was excited to come back to a place that had such a profound impact on my life.

She went straight from UofA to the graduate center at the City University of New York, a public institution known for the radical thinking and action Ribeiro sought in education. In CUNY’s program, graduate students were required to teach right away.

During graduate school, she taught at diverse institutions like Queens College and NYU's Gallatin School, which further shaped her teaching philosophy. Ribeiro enjoyed that her students weren’t always “typical” college students – some were fresh out of high school, but others had medical degrees from other countries, or were eighty-year-old students auditing a class “just hanging out for fun.”

After earning her master's in philosophy from CUNY in 2014, Ribeiro returned to Seattle Central College as a faculty member in the English department — 15 years after her time as a student. “It was a real unicorn job,” she said. “I was excited to come back to a place that had such a profound impact on my life.”

“The love of learning and community that I experienced at Central — I didn't ever want to let go of that,” she added.

One of Ribeiro’s favorite parts of teaching English is how frequently her students discover new things in texts she’s read a thousand times. “I just love collective thinking,” she explained. “I love being in a space where ideas are shared and combined and aggregated, in a space where you can pin together a constellation of ideas.”

She also appreciates the energy that this generation of students brings to the classroom. “I never had students like I had at Central who were just ready to go and already knew a lot.” she explained. “The people here are really action oriented.”

There aren’t a lot of places where I can do what I do at Central.

Ribeiro's dedication to Seattle Central goes beyond the classroom. As faculty union president, she advocates for faculty rights across the district and helps foster a collaborative and inclusive work environment. “I want my students to be that person at work who says, ‘Does this happen to you? Have you noticed this? Do you want to do something about it?’” she said.

As an English professor, Ribeiro naturally has a keen eye for the motifs in her own story.

“Narratively, there is this continuity of circling back and everything coming together, and I'm not talking in terms of fate or kismet or anything, but I think there's a reason I'm back at Central,” Ribeiro reflected. “There aren’t a lot of places where I can do what I do at Central.”