Experience across the globe carries SOE alumna to Fulbright award

For Fajir Amin, her career in education has always seemed like a path of destiny.

A sketch of Amin by her students in the UAE

Fajir Amin at her school in the United Arab Emirates

A Palestinian-American who received her M.T. in elementary education from VCU in 2012, Amin recalls a life-changing experience on Richmond’s Main Street early in her academic career.

“I remember hearing the news that Sheikh Zayed [bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the philanthropic leader who transformed the modern United Arab Emirates], had passed away, and in that moment, I looked up and saw Oliver Hall right in front of me,” Amin said. “And it just felt like that was where I was supposed to be - that I too could make a difference and be part of educational reform.”

Little did she know, however, that journey would carry her halfway around the world, to the island of Dalma: a small settlement of about 10,000 people in the western region of the United Arab Emirates.

A less urban, more traditional area of the UAE, Amin’s first teaching assignment in Dalma proved to be a real test of her skills. She was handed a challenging group of fourth-grade boys that other teachers had shied away from: in fact, the students had been through five different teachers in the previous academic year alone.

The island of Delma in the UAE

The island of Dalma in the UAE

Pranks, such as cutting off the water supply to her home, were among their more innocent pursuits.

“It was just a rough group,” Amin said. “I had a lot of rules up on my wall.”

Amin refused to give up on the boys, however, and, as the year went on, things began to change.

“They saw I was different,” Amin said. “The pranks stopped, and I could feel their characters blossoming. I saw a lot of change in them both personally and academically.”

The students’ progress was so pronounced that, when the end of the year came, Amin didn’t want their work together to end. So she told the school’s principal she wanted to move up, along with her students, to the fifth grade — a practice in education called looping.

“The principal, Ms. Sanaa Izzuddin, wasn’t sure if I was brave or crazy!” Amin said. “But I just said to myself, ‘I’m not finished with these kids yet.’ I needed them and they needed me.”

That consistency proved to be a revelation for both students and teacher. Amin used the summer to prepare, gathering the supplies she knew her students needed. And when the start of the school year rolled around, the class hit the ground running.

A sketch of Amin by her students in the UAE

A sketch of Amin by her students in the UAE

“Instead of the first week of school being frantic, where you’re both trying to figure each other out, we were ready.” Amin said. “I knew what I was doing. I knew my students — the keys to them and what made them click — and they knew me.”

That experience in Dalma formed the basis of Amin’s Fulbright proposal, which she was awarded in spring 2016. The 10-month grant, scheduled to start in the fall, will see her travel to the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, to examine the benefits of teachers spending multiple years with the same cohort of students.

“I realized that would be an interesting study: to see the effects of looping on the aptitude and attitude of elementary students learning the English language in the UAE,” Amin said.

While her time in the UAE may have inspired her Fulbright application, Amin credits the team at VCU with helping make it a reality.

“Receiving the Fulbright is an honor, but it wasn’t just me alone,” she said. “A lot of people deserve credit — [VCU Alumni’s] Gordon McDougall, [The Honors College] Jeff Wing: so many people were helpful along the way.”

Amin reserved special praise for Dr. Joan Rhodes, a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning who has served as Amin’s professional mentor and close friend since she graduated four years ago.

Teacher Fajir Amin reads along with one of her students in the United Arab Emirates

Fajir Amin reads along with one of her students in the United Arab Emirates

“I believe you are just a sum of the people you surround yourself with, and Dr. Rhodes is a wonderful person,” Amin said. “She and I just clicked on a personal level. Asking her to be my professional mentor is one of the wisest things I’ve ever done for myself.”

For Amin, the help she received throughout the Fulbright application process served as a microcosm of her entire VCU experience.

“From day one at VCU, I realized that doors will open to you if you are willing to do the work and take chances,” Amin said. “To get this award, I asked and I received.

"I’ve been handed the tools to make an impact on a macro level. The sky's the limit; the horizon of Dalma got a whole lot wider. Just like Oliver Hall before it, that island in the middle of nowhere was where I was supposed to be. This is my chance to make a difference, and I’m not going to waste it. ”