A daughter of immigrants finds her niche in the teaching profession
MAT online student Lena Aloumari gained strength from mentors
By Elaine Woo
Growing up in her small North Carolina town, Lena Aloumari just wanted to blend in, but it often felt like a struggle. She wasn’t comfortable talking about her Egyptian-Syrian heritage or being Muslim, especially after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Her sense of difference weighed on her until she moved to Egypt in 2006 for her last two years of high school. Suddenly finding herself in the majority was a transformative experience—one that she hopes will help make her the kind of teacher America needs in such fractious times.
On Friday, Aloumari, 26, will receive her master of arts in teaching from USC Rossier and address her 400 fellow graduates at commencement. As she prepares to walk for her degree, she reflected on the journey that took her from North Carolina to Egypt, where her mother was born, to USC Rossier’s online MAT program.
Aloumari grew up about 16 miles south of Chapel Hill, N.C., in Pittsboro, population 4,000. Her mother worked as a nurse and her father, a Syrian immigrant, ran a restaurant serving Middle East cuisine.
She was in middle school when the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington occurred. Although she never experienced overt discrimination, she keenly remembers how much she tried to downplay her religion and ethnicity.
Her attitude did not begin to change until she was in high school. Her parents divorced, and she moved with her mother to Cairo for several years.
“It was great to be somewhere where it wasn’t weird to bring leftover Egyptian food for lunch, where I was able to accept myself more,” Aloumari recalled in an interview last week from her mother’s current home in San Antonio. Her self-acceptance deepened at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., where she studied communications and helped start a Muslim student group that hosts Eid celebrations and other cultural events.
After graduating in 2013, she planned a career in journalism, and returned to Egypt to hone her Arabic skills in the hope it would improve her chances of finding a reporting job there.
While waiting for the big break, she did what many young Americans abroad do.
“I thought, ‘Until I find a steady job, I will teach,’” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
For the next two years Aloumari taught English as a second language at the New Generation International Schools in Cairo. Her students, most of whom were Egyptian, energized her. “They were very eager to learn,” Aloumari said. “They were so eager to meet someone from America, pick up the accent … and get to know me.”
Soon she decided to make teaching her profession and began researching masters programs. She found USC Rossier’s online Master of Arts in Teaching program and was attracted to its novel online curriculum because it offered the flexibility to spend time with each of her parents.
“The online program went beyond my expectations,” Aloumari said. Classes were small—between eight and 18 students—and she found it easy to build relationships and interact with others even though the only space they shared was on a computer screen. “I made friends and was able to work collaboratively with students in London and Japan,” she said.
She completed her student teaching at Boyette Springs Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., a suburb of Tampa, where her mentor teachers inspired her to focus on the whole child and not only on academics.
“I can count on one hand the teachers I felt really cared about me as a person,” Aloumari said, thinking back on her early schooling. “Seeing those teachers so committed to investing in their students triggered something in me.”
She hopes to start her teaching career this fall in Texas. She also wants to squeeze in another trip to Egypt this summer.
“Students come from a variety of backgrounds and beliefs,” she said, reflecting on the lessons from her own life. “I’d like to be able to tell my students it’s OK to be different, you don’t have to try to make yourself fit in. Our country is evolving in such a way that’s it’s not just one majority anymore.”