Leadership, Innovation and Determination: Two UMass Boston Early Childhood Fellows Share Their Stories

Leadership, Innovation and Determination: Two UMass Boston Early Childhood Fellows Share Their Stories

An innovative fellowship launched by UMass Boston’s Institute for Early Educator Leadership and Innovation provides full scholarships for early educators. Funding by the city of Boston (with American Rescue Plan Act dollars) will cover tuition and expenses for 52 fellows earning bachelor’s degrees, in exchange for a promise to work in the city for three years.

When the fellowship was announced, Marcelo Juica, Ph.D., director of Programs of the Early Ed Leadership Institute and co-director of the Early Childhood Fellowship, said it would “create a powerful pipeline of trained educators to grow the early childhood education workforce in the city.”

“The fellowship tackles many of the obstacles faced by early educators seeking their bachelor’s degree,” said Anne Douglass, Ph.D., founder and executive director of the Early Ed Leadership Institute and a professor of early education at UMass Boston.

The initiative fits squarely into Boston’s overall early education strategy. “The greatest investment we can make in our future is to support and center our young people,” said Mayor Michelle Wu last summer when announcing a $20 million investment to expand universal pre-K.

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Debra Johnston-Malden, M.S., director of the Early Childhood Fellowship program, added that it would “increase the professionalization of the early education workforce in the city of Boston and have a positive, multigenerational impact on the lives of children and their families.”

Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to two fellows who reflect UMass Boston’s commitment to welcoming educators from populations that have historically faced barriers to higher education. (Two-thirds of UMass Boston’s early education graduates are BIPOC women.)

“Thank you for tilling the soil and planting the seed of hope. I am going to be a fruit of that seed. I will give back to every child that I encounter.” — Danielle Grant

“Anything in My Power”

Amal Salah

Amal Salah, 21, didn’t initially set out to become an early childhood educator. She was studying Health and Society at UMass Dartmouth when she came to a realization: the last time she felt fulfilled had been caring for children at Boston Children’s Hospital. Transferring to UMass Boston enabled her to follow a pathway that excited her.

“As a first-generation student who really didn’t know much about college, I had to find my own pathway,” she says. “I’m the first out of all of my cousins, so I’m the setting example for everyone.”

Salah was born in Somalia. Her parents fled civil war and moved to Italy before relocating to Boston. Her father drives for Uber and her mother stays at home. “I don’t want to be a financial burden on them,” she says. The UMass fellowship relieves that burden, though she still had to convince her parents that early education was a viable career option. “Growing up in an immigrant family,” she says, “You’re basically given three choices: lawyer, engineer or doctor. There’s a stigma around teaching, but as an early educator, I can advocate for those kids that want to pursue different careers.”

Salah, who is Black and Muslim, is determined to break other stigmas, too. “I’m excited about parents and students seeing someone like me in a classroom, which isn’t a common occurrence.” She has also struggled with ADHD—diagnosed only recently—and has learned that it’s okay to ask for help with assignments.

“I tell my brothers, ‘Please ask for help. Don’t be scared to reach out. Look at me, I’ve been through everything, so I definitely know the resources and the people to contact.’”

Salah plans on getting her master’s degree next, perhaps in social work. Whatever course she follows, she promises “to be an advocate to those kids who are not ready to speak up yet and to show them that I will do anything in my power to help.”

Persevering Against the Odds

Danielle Grant grew up in a beautiful area in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. Her passion to become an educator showed at a young age when she noticed children in her neighborhood not attending school because of their socioeconomic background. “I made a makeshift blackboard and dug white stone to make chalk,” she recalls, “and I would dress up in my mother’s heels and congregate all the children on a Sunday afternoon to teach them their ABC’s and 123’s.”

Danielle Grant

In Grant’s family, education was a priority. Her mother earned a high school diploma, and her father attended Bunker Hill Community College when he immigrated to America.  Like her father, she also attended Bunker Hill and obtained an associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education. As she recalls, “I just did not have the financial support and other resources, which delayed and derailed my dream of getting a higher education to further pursue my goal of becoming a teacher.”

For the past six years, Grant has worked at the Joseph Lee Elementary School. Previously, she taught after-school programs and was employed at Perkins Schools for the Blind, where she worked alongside students who were blind, DeafBlind (refers to individuals with both hearing and vision loss), autistic and with other disabilities. After a number of personal setbacks, including a major health scare during the birth of her fourth child, the UMass Boston fellowship is helping her to realize her long-term ambition of getting a bachelor’s degree.

“I had to push ahead,” she declares. “The message I was teaching others was the same thing I had to embody in my own personal life, which is persevering against the odds. I kept telling myself: ‘You can do hard things, Danielle. You are capable of achieving your goals. You can defy the odds.’ I repeatedly admonished myself until it sank in and I began to believe it.”

With the emotional support of her husband (Conroy), mother (Rosalyn) and four children (Hannah, Micah, Abigail-Rose and Elizabeth), Grant just passed her first Massachusetts Teachers Educational Licensure exam. In addition to the financial support she is receiving from the fellowship, she is immensely appreciative of the way the UMass Fellowship mentors encouraged her, and of the camaraderie with the other fellows.

At a recent fellowship meeting, she stood up and expressed gratitude to those who made the fellowship possible: “Thank you for tilling the soil and planting the seed of hope. I am going to be a fruit of that seed. I will give back to every child that I encounter.”

Grant’s plans on paying it forward. Recently she wrote a children’s book titled My Hair Story that empowers children, through affirmation, to overcome challenges in order to realize their dreams. Since its publication she has generously distributed many copies to young children—for free. The book currently has 100% five-star reviews on Amazon.

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