Rawa Abu Alsamah was in constant motion on a recent Friday morning, zipping around the gymnasium of Denver’s STRIVE Prep-Lake Campus Middle School as she oversaw a pop-up market put on by her students. In her wake was a line of students following behind like ducklings.
Some wanted to show their teacher the homemade product they were selling. Others wanted to tell her a funny story from the previous night. A few just wanted a hug.
Abu Alsamah gave each of them her attention, advice and entrepreneurial expertise as she helped the students set up their small businesses on tables scattered around the gym floor.
Abu Alsamah paused — only for a moment — to scan the room and take it all in. She beamed.
“This is exactly what I wanted because I see my students smiling and happy and passionate,” she said.
Growing up in Saudi Arabia, Abu Alsamah was denied opportunities because of her gender. If she wanted to play sports, she had to do so in secret.
Last year, Abu Alsamah was STRIVE Prep Lake Campus’s girls soccer coach.
“Do you know how amazing that is?” Abu Alsamah said.
Abu Alsamah teaches special education and gifted and talented education at the Denver STRIVE Prep charter school. She teaches an enrichment course in which students learn different topics such as entrepreneurship, Arabic and international affairs.
Abu Alsamah tells her students about what life was like growing up in Saudi Arabia and answers their questions about the Middle East.
“I’m very honored to be the link between the students and different cultures,” Abu Alsamah said. “To present my country in a different way and tell the world Saudi women are capable and we can do this. Strive and Colorado is so welcoming.”
The charter school, which is slated to close next school year, bestowed Abu Alsamah with a unique title — education ambassador.
“I am honored to be the ambassador and represent my country, my language and rich culture in a good way,” Abu Alsamah said. “I want to disrupt the stereotypes and show the world how capable and successful Saudi women are.”
In September, Abu Alsamah met with the Saudi Arabian minister of education during an event celebrating Saudi Arabia’s National Day. The Denver teacher shared her story in hopes of forging a path for more Saudi women to join her in the United States education workforce.
“I’ve never heard of another Saudi woman who is working in (an) American public school or earning their teaching license,” Abu Alsamah said. “I think they’re worried they’re not going to get that support, but they can.”
Abu Alsamah finished her undergraduate degree in early childhood education at Saudi Arabia’s University of Dammam. The educator earned a scholarship that allowed her to study in the U.S. where she started attending the University of Colorado Boulder in 2015. She became the first Saudi Arabian woman at CU to graduate with a master’s degree in educational equity and cultural diversity, plus a dual endorsement in special education and culturally and linguistically diverse education.
Now, Abu Alsamah is attending the University of Denver working toward her doctorate in education leadership and policy. She doesn’t know what she’s going to do when the school closes but she is interested in pursuing an educational leadership position or finding a way to make education ambassador a more official job to bridge the gap between teaching and other cultures.
“All kids deserve a high-quality education and as a teacher, this is my responsibility I am carrying,” Abu Alsamah said. “I have to do whatever extra steps to provide them that high quality. Do I need to get another degree? I will do that. Learn a new language? I will do that.”
Matthew Murphy, director of electives at STRIVE Prep, said Abu Alsamah’s class is like an oasis for students where they are given agency over what they’re learning and respected and loved.
“She sees them,” Murphy said, of Abu Alsamah and her students. “She actually sees them. Not as a number or a test score. That’s hard, especially in schools that are closing left and right. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees but she does.”
Before the market opened, Abu Alsamah spent two months with her students helping them learn about small businesses. She allowed them to choose a product to make and sell, taught them about logos, purchasing supplies, salesmanship and found sponsorship that provided each student with $50 to create their product.
On Friday, students showed off their goods — products including homemade lip gloss, cake pops, slime, flavored popcorn and beaded bracelets.
Adonis Goodnight, 13, said Abu Alsamah helped him come up with the idea to sell lanyards and decorative pins.
“What I like about my teacher is that she’s so supportive,” Goodnight said. “She’s always there when you need her. She’s great. She’s kind. She loves her students. You can tell she loves being in school.”
After remote learning during the pandemic, Goodnight said the transition back to in-person left him a little shy.
“She made me open up to people, and she helped me make friends,” Goodnight said.
Giovanni Ontiveros, a STRIVE Prep teacher in his second year of teaching, has co-taught with Abu Alsamah throughout his time in the field.
Abu Alsamah has visited Ontiveros’ class to talk about the Quran or share her experience fasting for Ramadan.
“Every time I’m in the back of the class watching her teach, it’s like a masterclass,” Ontiveros said. “The way she builds relationships with students is like something I’ve never seen. She’s probably one of the best teachers in Denver, to be honest.”
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