The Milken Center for Advancing the American Dream is committed to making the American Dream a reality for millions of people around the globe by providing access to the pillars of education, health, economic opportunity, and entrepreneurship. This week, our blog focuses on the education pillar by highlighting our MCAAD staff and the educators who had positive impacts on their lives.
No one who knows me today will believe this, but I was very shy when I was a little girl. (No, really.) My fourth-grade teacher, Miss Wallace, was having none of it. Crying was not going to get me out of making my book report in front of the whole class. She encouraged me to speak up, taught me that I had a voice that deserved to be heard, and ultimately brought out the best in me. Who knows why she took such extra time and care with me, but I will be forever grateful to her for it.
Lincoln Mudd was an extraordinary teacher, artist and mentor. After decades in commercial real estate development, I turned to work in the nonprofit sector and gave myself time to explore my creative side. My first artistic attempt was a series of Sculpture courses at Montgomery College taught by Lincoln. He inspired, challenged, supported and encouraged each of his students. He gave me the skills to create with metal and the confidence to enter my pieces in art shows. Lincoln opened and welcomed me into a new world!
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, the head of the interior design department, Katherine Leigh, had a tremendous influence on my career trajectory. Not only did she provide support and guidance for what was then an entirely new undertaking and passion for me, but she encouraged me to take on leadership roles in a number of student organizations and initiatives. A commitment to design and a willingness to engage with large groups of people have been the hallmarks of my career to date.
The teacher that had a great impact on me was my games teacher, Mrs. Shaw. Although I was born and grew up in Nigeria, I went to secondary school in England, and we called physical education “games.” Mrs. Shaw taught me tennis, netball, rounders (an English game that resembles baseball) and most importantly, lacrosse. What I valued about Mrs. Shaw was not only the thrill of learning to master sports, but some of the life lessons that were ingrained in the experience. She taught me that ability was the only thing that counted - difference didn’t matter. For a time, I was one of only three black students at my school (my older sisters were the other two) but all Mrs. Shaw cared about was whether I could play and whether I could lead. She chose me to captain the 1st Lacrosse XII and to be the School Games Captain, and the other lessons, which have been important to me throughout my life soon flowed from there: the importance of teamwork, how to lead, how to win and how to lose with grace, and coaching and mentoring others. She was a great teacher of those lessons in life that are not just found in books.
I have had many educators play a formative role in my life—both formal and informal—and it’s challenging to highlight just one. But one of the earlier ones that comes to mind is Mr. Fred Atkins. By day he was a middle school math teacher but after school and on weekends he was the adviser to several community service clubs. Since I was a little girl, my grandmother had instilled in me a sense of service to others; Mr. Atkins allowed that conviction to blossom. With his leadership and support, I spent countless hours training and practicing as a peer mediator, cleaning up neighborhood graffiti, delivering meals to the elderly, and participating in the Mayor’s student advisory council. It’s likely that Mr. Atkins taught me some algebra and geometry but the lasting lessons were of kindness, violence interruption, and student activism.
I’m lucky to have always had a built-in teacher just a phone call away, my older sister Caitlin. She’s the smartest person I know, and growing up she was my go-to tutor, my essay editor, and my flashcard quizzer. Now she’s a civics teacher at the Lab School here in Washington DC, and she loves to tell me about her latest learning obsessions or summarize the history books she’s reading. I literally always learn something new from her.
Mr. Kaissy was a phenomenal math teacher. He could take the most complicated equation, to my 10-year-old self, and make it simple. He magically made me feel like I could understand anything. And, when I couldn't, his patience was endless. He always encouraged me to try new ways of solving a problem, and, most of all, to have patience and perseverance. I'm grateful for his continued efforts to help me succeed, from middle school to SAT exams, and not letting me give up when a problem seemed unsolvable.
Early one fall in high school, I decided I wanted to drop out of AP English because I was worried that I wouldn’t succeed at a “college” level after one or two challenging class periods. Upon seeing my request for a revised class schedule, the school principal, Ms. Edmunds, called me into her office and told me that under no circumstance could I drop out, and that I absolutely could manage the work level- I just had to try. I stayed the course, and it ended up my favorite class in all of high school. Years later when I earned a Master’s Degree in English, I thought back to Ms. Edmunds and how grateful I am that she could see my potential and my areas of strength long before I knew them myself.
I could barely read in English when I entered third grade as I had spent the previous three school years living in Guadalajara, Mexico, but Mrs. Larson (a volunteer!) helped me catch up to my peers by working with me outside the classroom during my class's scheduled reading time. She taught me how to read and also helped develop my confidence through her compassion and patience, so I did not feel behind my grade level.
I started taking violin lessons with Clara Takarabe when I was seven years old,and she became a close mentor and big role model in my life. Although I stopped taking lessons with her after graduating high school, she has remained one of the most important educators in my life. Clara is always just a phone call away, always willing to offer wisdom and support.
Claiming I am a self-made man is preposterous, to say the least, as I have had people support, encourage, and inspire me. The most pivotal moment in my life was when I met Frank Luntz, my educator. Thanks to him I am now interning at MCAAD, expanding my network, and acquiring real-life skills that have set me on a path to success. I only hope to one day pay it forward and positively impact the lives of others.
My high school advisor Mike Mastrocola made an immense impact on me during some extremely formative years in young adulthood. I was the only senior in my advisee group, and he encouraged my leadership skills and challenged me to be an example to the younger students in the group. He was an extremely important figure in my change from late childhood to early adulthood.
In high school I had the same math teacher for three years. I was not sure if math was what I loved to study, but she made it so that I had a deeper understanding of each concept we learned. She listened to me and helped me when I was upset or struggled, she lifted me up when I raved about something that made perfect sense, and she showed the greatest kindness and genuineness throughout all three years. Though it is not what I turned out to study, she still taught me how to be more patient with myself and others and how to think critically about any problem that stands in front of me.