Starting at a young age, Principal Melissa Sweazy’s parents told her that she had a social responsibility to help those around her. Her method of impact is education because she believes that “education is one of the greatest civil rights issues and social justice issues of our time.” Melissa began as a teacher and five years ago became the first principal of UCSN Esmeralda Santiago.
Melissa is the daughter of a public school teacher and an English professor, so she says that education “is truly in [her] genes.” Growing up in a family of educators, they talked about serious issues around the dinner table. Powerful conversations surrounding poverty, substance abuse, breakdown of the family unit and abuse hit close to home in her small town.
Growing up in a rural and impoverished area in Southern Illinois, Melissa was deeply affected by her high school experience. “My graduating class had a 70 percent graduation rate. I saw a lot of my peers in elementary school start to disconnect and look away from school,” she said. Melissa went into education to catch more kids before becoming disinterested, disengaged and uninvested in their own education.
Melissa’s upbringing shapes her current leadership style. “I grew up seeing my mother go through different cycles of joy in her life depending on the type of leader she had… It was just amazing how much happier she was and more productive when she had a supportive leader, someone who challenged her, but also provided equal levels of support,” she said. “I want to be that support for teachers because I think teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world.”
Melissa opened UCSN Santiago at full capacity allowing her to reach more students at a more rapid rate. Opening at full capacity with a lean staff was an extremely challenging task. She said, “It was certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life by far, but I’m still standing and we have a great school and great growth.”