Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

This Cabarrus ESL teacher wrote a book about her experiences as an immigrant

Voiced by Amazon Polly

Emily Francis, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher at Concord High School in Cabarrus County, has published a book about her journey immigrating from Guatemala to the U.S. as an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, and becoming an educator.

The book, called “If You Only Knew,” was published in September and is told in a series of letters Francis wrote to eight of her students – Orlando, Aida, Cecilia, Mónica, Raquel, Alonso, Marco, and Jaime. Each letter showcases one of her students’ stories and intertwines Francis’ own experiences and advice.

When Francis was 9 years old, she drove her mother’s truck around their town in Guatemala to sell fruit and clothing for their family business. Her mother left for the U.S. when she was 12, and Francis became a caretaker for her siblings. In 1994, Francis made the journey to the U.S. with a smuggler, at 15 years old.

But her journey did not end after reaching the U.S.

As detailed in her book, Francis struggled as an ESL student in high school and failed to pass an American history exam that she needed to graduate. After a few years of working as a supermarket cashier, she moved to Concord, North Carolina to live with her aunt and raise her child.

In Concord, she discovered she could get a GED. She was shocked no one had previously told her about this option. After earning her GED in 2001, Francis earned an associate degree before going on to earn a bachelor’s in Spanish and a master’s in teaching from UNC-Charlotte.

Francis is now in her 11th year as an ESL teacher. She wrote “If You Only Knew” for her students – to inspire her newcomer students to open doors and break stereotypes people might have about them.

“We don’t have to be dominated by those deficits,” she said. “And that’s where these eight newcomers (come in) for showing that they can break through those deficits and those barriers and really make it.”

Francis said students across the country have been reaching out to tell her they identify with her story, and thank her for showing them their potential in the classroom.

She recently met a group of students from Kentucky who read her book, and then immediately opened their own Google Docs pages to start writing their own stories. She’s also been receiving letters from students who are sharing their own immigration stories with her.

“That’s exactly what I wanted to accomplish with the book,” she said. “Empower students to sit down, take that pencil, and write their own stories.”

Francis has also received messages from teachers thanking her for breaking their assumptions about English language learners in their classroom. She said there have even been superintendents reading her book, which she hopes can influence decisions made in school districts about English language learners.

She’s also shared the book with her students, including the students she wrote to in the book, whose names were changed for publication.

“For them to open the book and say, ‘Hey, this is my story intertwined with Mrs. Francis,’ it’s just so cool,” she said.

Francis said her book emphasizes that there is not a single story for immigrants in the U.S. Each one of her students’ stories showcased in her book is different.

When she was a young girl, she never expected that she would become a teacher or a published author.

“I was a little girl selling oranges in the market,” she said. “I wanted to have a different life.”

She credits education as the reason she made it, which is why she is using her book to encourage students who have been through similar experiences. “If I made it, you can make it too” is the message she wants to send.

She said her experiences as an immigrant have helped her connect with her students, and she teaches lessons that bring out their identities and stories. She’s excited to teach this book in her classroom next year.

She’s also working on a Spanish translation of the book, as well as writing a book about her journey targeted more toward adults.

“I’m going to continue writing and show students that our story doesn’t end there,” she said, “our story continues.”

Sonia Rao

Sonia Rao is a spring 2023 reporting and engagement fellow for EducationNC.