Restorative spirit

Esther Okelola discovered a pathway to teach

Aarinola Esther Okelola had an “aha” moment in the fall of her freshman year. She was enrolled in a College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) course on making a difference in the lives of young people.

A guest speaker spoke about the disproportionate number of students of color who are suspended from school and subsequently end up in the juvenile justice system. That’s when Okelola knew she wanted to pursue a career in education.

“‘Restorative’ is one of my strengths, so if there is a problem, I have to try to fix it,” says Okelola.

As a high school student, Okelola attended a predominantly white school in Champlin while living in Brooklyn Center, a low-income and more diverse community north of Minneapolis. She enjoyed volunteering as a homework helper at Brookdale Library near her home. Now that she’s a literacy tutor for CEHD’s America Reads program, she is especially excited to become an elementary education teacher.

“I like to make a big impact so I feel like, by being in a classroom, I get a group of students that become my own,” she says. “I can put my knowledge and passion and my belief in them, and instill them with positivity, hope, and encouragement for life.”

Okelola has been attuned to social injustices since she was young. She emigrated from Lagos, Nigeria, to the United States when she was six years old. Her mother encouraged her to become an engineer or doctor, paths that would likely lead to financial security, so Okelola entered college thinking she might pursue one of these paths and contribute to education in a volunteer capacity. But her experiences so far have solidified her desire to become a teacher.

“CEHD instructors are available and encouraging,” says Okelola. “They have introduced me to so many things, and I can easily talk to them.”

Okelola is also active in several student groups. She is in the Black Student Union and serves on the boards of the African Student Association and the Community Engagement Scholars Program. She recently won the African Student Association’s Ms. Africa pageant, an annual event that highlights African culture. For the pageant, Okelola was asked to describe what her African heritage and culture meant to her.

“I talked about education, of course,” she says, laughing. “I also talked about the multiple identities I have of being both a black and African woman in the United States, and how that can be difficult.”

Okelola plans to teach in Minneapolis or St. Paul, ideally in a third or fourth grade classroom because that age is a time of rapid learning.  She wants to eventually obtain her Ph.D. in educational policy to work towards dismantling educational inequities.

“While I’m teaching, I want to learn from what’s going on at the district level, get to know the members of the school board, and gain different perspectives,” she says.

To broaden her own perspectives on education, Okelola is planning to study abroad in Montpellier, France, where she will teach English to French students. She says being open to these types of experiences are invaluable to her as a future educator and policy maker.

“To be a good teacher, I think you have to be open to learning about other people’s experiences and not just your own,” she says. “Not just listening, but really sitting down and letting what you know be tested.”

Learn more about CEHD’s undergraduate experience.

Story by Christina Clarkson | June 2015