Opening Minds, Building Trust

Naureen Ali ’12
Courtesy Naureen Ali
Naureen Ali ’12

Many of the students assigned to Naureen Ali ’12, a fourth-grade teacher at Houston’s Sutton Elementary School, are refugees.

They hail from more than 25 different countries, including war-torn regions like Somalia, Gaza and Honduras. Most live in Houston’s poorest neighborhoods. When these 8- and 9-year-olds come into Ali’s classroom for the first time, they are often distrustful, even angry.

So, on the first day of school, Ali sits down and tells them her story. “I am just like you,” she begins.

Born to Pakistani and Tanzanian parents, Ali emigrated to Houston at a young age. She attended schools in Sutton Elementary’s school district. She lived amid the same gang violence her students endure today. But, with the support of her parents and teachers, she became the first member of her family to go to college.

“These kids are not going to work hard if they don’t trust me,” Ali says. “Sharing my story early on shows them that we are the same. And if I can be successful and go to college, they can too.”

A member of Teach for America, Ali was named one of the nation’s top educators in 2014 as a finalist for the Sue Lehmann Award for Excellence in Teaching. Although most corps members teach for two years, Ali — who graduated from Brandeis with a dual degree in biology and Health: Science, Society and Policy (HSSP) — is staying in the classroom for a third year, thanks to a grant awarded by her school district. She plans to apply to medical school, then work in underserved communities as a physician.

“As an HSSP major, I learned about the myriad inequities in the health-care system,” Ali says. “A lot of these social implications go hand in hand with what I do in the classroom, because everything is interconnected when you’re addressing systems of injustice.”

How do you fight those systems of injustice? Education and hope, Ali says. “When I was in fourth grade, I had no idea what college was, let alone that it would be my reality.

“But when you give students an education and someone who invests in them, it’s really amazing what these kids are capable of.”

— Leah Burrows