There are many inspiring teachers who drive their students to succeed. More unusual is the teacher who takes this objective literally, as Felicia Mouton did when she drove her student 1,500 miles from Metairie, La., to Amherst’s Accepted Students Day. But this Swift Moore Teaching Award winner’s act of generosity only scratches the surface of her impact on Diego Carias ’23’s life. In a rare quiet moment a few days before Commencement, we caught up with Carias, a biology major hoping to pursue a PhD in the sciences, to get the rest of the story.
Q: What can you tell us about Ms. Mouton as an educator?
A: I first got to know Ms. Mouton as my eighth grade honors English teacher. I had moved to the U.S. from Honduras three years ago at that point and had just graduated from ESL. She was not an easy teacher. She was very strict because she took it seriously, but I could tell even then it was for my benefit. I remember how we held discussions in class about our readings. I'd always been interested in literature but this was the first time I felt challenged intellectually within the subject. She didn't shy away from difficult material, despite our very underfunded school system.
She ended up taking a job teaching ninth grade English at my high school [Grace King High School, now closed] when I was in 10th grade. Even though we weren’t taking classes with her, my friends and I would go see her during lunch and free periods throughout the rest of high school. She also ran the gifted program, which my friend Hasham Warrich ’24E was part of. My other friends and I weren’t in the program but we would still crash the course. She welcomed us into the space and we took advantage of that—we participated in the same way, working on puzzles and projects, and playing interactive games. In an area where students often went to jail or were crushed by poverty, she wanted to make sure we had a safe space where we could just be.
Q: How do you think Ms. Mouton helped prepare you for Amherst?
A: Ms. Mouton always made me feel confident in myself because she valued me as a student. She listened to me. You need those sorts of mentors—people who actually believe in you are what make you believe in yourself. We come from very different cultures. She's from New Orleans with a French background—she's cooked me alligator meat before! But she treated me like any other person, like a student with potential. I think, especially leading up to college admissions, she cultivated in us that confidence that we were going to be OK; that we were going to make it out of the situation we were in. She helped with letters of recommendation and advice. But I think it was more that feeling of having an academic mentor and a real advocate. She was that person for all of my close friends. She wanted to see us excel, and we did: Hasham and I ended up at Amherst, and my other two close friends went to Yale and Tulane.
Q: How was it that she ended up driving you to Amherst’s Accepted Student Day?
A: I was in a very tricky immigration situation where I couldn't travel by flight. My mom had just finished her chemotherapy for breast cancer that year, so she couldn't make the 24-hour drive from New Orleans. I remember telling Ms. Mouton about it just to vent. I wasn’t expecting help. But, when I told her, she immediately said, “I can just drive you myself.” I was in shock. She and her friend, a professor at Tulane, drove me the whole way. That was really amazing. It’s one of the main reasons I nominated her for the Swift Moore. I wanted to thank her for that. It was a very big gift. Literally—she paid for everything, like hotels and gas and meals—but also just the meaning behind it. It’s a reminder to me that people can be so kind and good.