LOS ANGELES (KABC) --Now a special-education teacher, Jaice Mendoza-Macias was once an undocumented immigrant.
"I didn't always know that I was undocumented, but I always felt different," Mendoza said.
Mendoza says he uses that experience to identify with his students at Manuel Arts Senior High School in the Vermont Square area of South Los Angeles.
"They feel disenfranchised, and I felt disenfranchised when I was undocumented," he said.
In high school, his mother was a random victim of a gang-related shooting.
"My mother, on her way from work, she was shot by a woman who had also shot four other people," Mendoza said.
She became a key witness in the case, allowing her and her family to qualify for a U-Visa.
Mendoza is now a legal permanent resident, which allows him to work as a teacher in the same district he grew up in.
Mendoza says it was important for him to teach in a community like the one he was raised in.
He also works with the nonprofit Teach For America because "their mission was to ensure that in low-income schools, in higher-risk schools, we were getting quality instruction," Mendoza said.
He's also part of a teacher exchange program to better understand students from diverse backgrounds. He's gearing up to return to Mexico for the first time and observe a teacher who is currently shadowing him for a week.
"We get to provide each other with helpful insights on what is working and what we can improve," Mendoza said.
He says sometimes his biggest motivation is outside the classroom.
"When they see me down the hall and they stop me, have a conversation with me that isn't academic, I know that I'm doing something right because I know that they feel comfortable enough to say, 'Hey, here's someone that I can identify with,'" Mendoza said.