Bridging Cultures

Najma Cheema ’16 knows a little something about her students’ experience.

Like many of her second-graders in Woodburn, Ore., Cheema moved to the United States as a child and had to learn English from her peers in the classroom.

Her parents, who had moved from India, didn’t speak English, didn’t have all of their immigration papers, and struggled financially to send her to college for a better life.

“Ever since I was little, I knew that I wanted to go to school and be educated,” Cheema said.

She enrolled in Chemeketa Community College with a scholarship, planning to become a dental hygienist, when a career exploration class pointed her toward teaching instead. A counselor connected her with the Pacific University Woodburn Campus, where a brand new partnership program was offering Chemeketa students a pathway to a bachelor’s degree and teaching license.

“I was one of the first ones in the program,” she said. “It was very hard. I was always that student who sat in the back, but at Pacific I had to be very involved. My teacher really cared about us, and I learned to speak up because it was a small group of students. This experience taught me confidence, and I learned to communicate better.”

“I’m the first one in my family to actually graduate and have a career. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to go to Pacific.”

Within weeks of finishing her bachelor’s degree, Cheema was offered a job teaching second grade at Washington Elementary School, an English-Spanish bilingual immersion school where she had done her student-teaching. She co-teaches 42 students who split their time between her instruction in English and her teaching partner’s instruction in Spanish.

For Cheema, the decision to attend Pacific was a risk: “I was super scared: How am I going to pay for this? Before I started going to Pacific I used to cry because I knew I wanted to be educated but I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen. My family wasn’t able to send me to a university financially.

“I’m the first one in my family to actually graduate and have a career. I’m blessed to have the opportunity to go to Pacific. I got a lot of great scholarships and great support. My next step is to get my master’s degree and teach at the same time. ”

In the meantime, she can use her career to empower other children. While she teaches her students to read, to tell time, and to explore other cultures, they are teaching her bits of Spanish — to go along with her fluent Punjabi and Hindi.

She can respect, and relate with, their experiences.

“I’ve gone through a similar experience. I understand their home life and everything that goes with it,” she said. “So I can give back and help these kids.”

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