Claudia has her own set of learning challenges, so she is especially sensitive to the needs of others. Her goals? Ensuring that every learner has a right to thrive, and that educational therapy is affordable and accessible to all families.

Claudia shares her inspiring journey…from her work with the United Nations to becoming a classroom teacher to her involvement in the foster care system to establishing her private educational therapy practice. She is truly rising to every challenge.

Q. What brought you to UCR University Extension, Claudia? Tell us about your path leading up to today.

A. I had been a teacher for many years, both at the grade school and college level. I had worked individually with university level students for quite some time. I was working as a reading specialist for the Department of Education, state of Hawaii, and I noticed that there was not enough support or resources for teachers and specialists to develop the literacy skills for children. I noticed that much of it had to do with a lack of general education in individualized learning and neuro-divergent learners.

After working with students on a one-to-one level, I knew that an important part of my journey as an educator would be to develop my skills and awareness of what students need when you’re working with them individually. When I saw the UCR University Extension classes available to train me to become an Educational Therapist, I knew that was the right program for me.

Q. What were some of the unexpected hurdles in your journey?

A. Like many people of all ages, I have my own set of learning challenges, and I had to adapt to online learning. I also had to learn how to become a self-advocate and ask for accommodations. UCR was incredibly supportive in this process, and the sense of shame and guilt many learners feel when they cannot communicate their learning needs was dispelled by their unending support and understanding of how all learning styles are acceptable.

Q. What were some of the unexpected benefits?

A. I really felt like I developed a community of friendships through the virtual learning platform. Learning online can be a very isolating experience, but I didn’t feel as alone because of the way we were encouraged to communicate with one another. Becoming an Educational Therapist means that you will be managing your own practice, so the opportunity to share different approaches and ideas about how to manage a practice was really inspirational.

Q. Looking back at where you were when you started this journey, where did you think or hope it would lead you?

A. When I started this journey, I really thought it was just an opportunity to take classes and develop skills to be a better tutor when working with students individually. I didn’t realize how beneficial and valuable it is to approach teaching and tutoring learners with specific strategies designed to benefit them on an individual level.

The instructors helped me develop a level of sensitivity and awareness by sharing strategies, and sharing the importance of ensuring that every learner has a right to thrive in their learning environment. This is a value that has now become a part of my own approach toward teaching and in my role now as an Educational Therapist. I never really thought I would be able to get here today, but with the volume of insights and abilities that have been instilled in me by my teachers, I made it!

Q. What have been some of the most exciting or rewarding moments of your career so far?

A. The most exciting moments are when I see a student start to believe in themselves as a learner after feeling like they were not able to achieve something. That is a priceless thing to witness. Some of the most rewarding moments are when you see the small steps, the super small steps that the learner takes to improve, but then they become part of their overall success.

Q. What professional and personal achievements are you most proud of, and why?

A. I’m most proud of the work I’ve done with refugees. As part of my work as an educator, I spent ten years working for the United Nations in Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia, and the DRC (Congo). While working with refugees, I observed the fragilities of their lives marked by an incredible amount of uncertainty and fear. These emotional obstacles existed for a reason. It is hard for refugees, or anyone living in poverty, to think about wanting to learn when there is no food to eat.

As a humanitarian aid worker representing The United Nations, I am proud of how we were often able to successfully secure and provide refugees the necessary aid they needed such as food, medical, or educational support. Some challenges were not met and resulted in feeling unsuccessful. For example, when a bridge or a road had to close, urgent goals such as food delivery was impacted, or critical medical assistance could not be provided. The goals had to be revisited and adjusted. It was heartbreaking to feel so powerless and at the same time, important to accept the reality that not all challenges can be resolved urgently.

These moments I experienced working in tragic humanitarian crisis increased my fascination with the process of learning a foreign language, literacy, and the complexity of language acquisition overall. In addition, it encourages my determination to witness improvements both in education and quality of life experiences for those who may feel like they do not have an opportunity or cannot meet an educational goal.

Whether I was in Sudan or Pakistan or Indonesia, where the languages and cultures compare and contrast, their felt emotions I witnessed parallel the same array of feelings I experience when I work with a learner who is hopeless, hesitant, and doesn't believe there is a path to their success. Encouraging determination and resilience in these moments is so imperative as it nurtures the hope that things can indeed change for the better.

Q. What has been the greatest challenge you have faced during your career?

A. One of the greatest challenges I face has been cultivating patience while working through obstacles. Oftentimes, these obstacles may deter my deep-rooted desire and intention to support students and give them the opportunities to get the quality of education they deserve. When I am faced with the limitations of not being able to do that due to bureaucratic or logistical challenges, it can feel very defeating. I empathize so deeply with the learner’s sensation of hopelessness. However, the challenges build my resilience and I become more determined to ensure the learner can experience growth despite whatever is preventing them, even if it may take longer to get on the path of success.

I’ve witnessed this both in my work with foster youth and in situations with parents who don’t want to believe that their child needs support--when in fact, the child is really struggling and needs that support. It’s heartbreaking to witness it, and to know that you are powerless over it because the parents have the final say in their child’s education, and you must respect those boundaries at all times. Remaining humble to the circumstances is an important tool to moving toward the next step.

Q. What advice would you give to students or graduates looking to move into your industry?

A. It’s really important to be patient when choosing this field of work because there are a lot of unexpected outcomes and challenging moments that require you to be open to implementing many different approaches to support the learner. You may start off assessing a learner, based on information received in a neuro psych evaluation. However, over time, you may realize the learner’s challenges are a result of other undiagnosed areas, or possibly the impact of emotional trauma experienced earlier in life. Trauma can shut down the brain, and often the emotional background of a learner is an element overlooked when working with a child.

Asking yourself questions is so critical. As an Educational Therapist, you will always be a detective by examining information such as trauma, piecing the elements together, and considering possibilities as to what would benefit the learner. At the same time, you are doing this, ensuring the learner is thriving during each session while they continue to grow is the priority. It is important to stay humble in your observations, too. You never know what can change from one day the next. Children are so resilient. They teach me that once I can connect to their challenge, it will give them space to grow emotionally and academically. As these shifts occur, it opens up other opportunities to evaluate. As a result, being open to outcome is a valuable perspective. However, patience does pay off, and ultimately leads you to feeling that it’s worth the moments of uncertainty and examination when you are not sure what is happening in the child’s learning process. This is the genuine purpose and value of being an educator: to learn from your student while teaching them.

Q. What difference did your experience at UCR University Extension make to your life path and career goals?

A. I did not really have a high degree of confidence when I started the program. I did not think I’d be able to complete it. I did not think I could be comparable to the standard I saw in my teachers. The instructors really were outstanding. However, as much as they were outstanding, they were also incredibly humble and they extended so much patience and consideration to me.

They never made me feel like they were too busy. They never made me feel like I was asking too many questions, either. One instructor would meet me on her breaks to talk to me. I have completed two Master’s degrees in education-related fields and I have never experienced the quality of the integrity, ethics, and support that I have experienced at UCR. University Extension. My instructors modeled the kind of educator I aspire to be, and their positive impact on my life path and career goals is something I take with me every day.

Q. Was there a particular department, staff member, or instructor memorable to your experience?

A. Penelope Joven was incredibly inspirational to me. She provided me with so many resources and gave me so much of her time and support. The time I spent with her helped me develop my inner confidence to become an Educational Therapist. Sometimes you have to see it in someone else before you see it in yourself, and she was the mirror I needed at just the right time.

Q. What are you doing now, Claudia?

A. I am currently in the initial stages of establishing my own private practice, which I intend to do, mainly virtually. My main goal in the process is to ensure that educational therapy is affordable to all families. This goal comes from my particular background as a foster parent and working with foster youth. I can see the gap in opportunities and support faced by students who may not have the financial means. Educational therapy sessions can be expensive, but these vital resources shouldn't only be for those who are able to pay. Any student who presents the need for it should have access to this support. A parent who may face financial challenges should also have the access to asking for financial assistance, as well.

Please find me on my website, where I offer both virtual and in-person support. And I am truly committed to making educational therapy affordable to all communities, so I hope to be available to anyone who contacts me.

Q. What are your hopes and aims for your future?

A. I would like to continue to pursue my work as an Educational Therapist benefiting children with all different kinds of socio-economic backgrounds. I would like to start a nonprofit where educational therapy could be free for families who cannot afford the services.

Q. In your life today, what makes you really happy?

A. What really makes me happy are acts of kindness and unexpected good will. It doesn’t have to be in the field of education. It could simply be anywhere where someone is trying to assist in improving the life of another and contributing to their best interest by providing the needed support. For example, as a foster parent, I lean closely on the schools my foster children attend. When a principal reached out and offered day camp to my foster child, I was so humbled. She said “no big deal.” However, it was a moment where I felt “Wow, this makes a difference and is a huge deal, as my foster child will be able to have this experience.”

Sometimes, as educators, we cannot 100% compensate for all the deficits in a child’s academic and emotional life. However, witnessing one’s willingness and initiative to add or improve to it always leaves me speechless with an overwhelming amount of gratitude, particularly when the end result is a huge smile on a child’s face!

We are always grateful to hear from our students. It strengthens our commitment to service, and their success inspires us. We’ll look for Claudia’s dream nonprofit that will ensure that “every learner has the right to thrive.”

Congratulations on your many accomplishments, Claudia, and for helping so many others rise to their challenges!

UCR University Extension alumna Claudia Zimmerman Claudia Zimmerman, Educational Therapist
Certified Member, Association of Educational Therapists
MA, Foreign Language Acquisition, San Francisco State University
MA, Education and Technology, University of San Francisco
Graduate, UCR University Extension
Professional Certificate in Educational Therapy