When first-year teacher and University of Colorado graduate Rawa Abu Alsamah noticed her Denver students were struggling with multiplication, she and her two children showed up at STRIVE Prep Kepner on a Saturday and painted a staircase with a rainbow of multiplication tables.
"Every time they go up or down, they're going to see it," Abu Alsamah said, beaming.
Abu Alsamah is 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.
"A special honor, indeed," said Hannah Fletcher, director of communications and alumni engagement for CU's School of Education.
When Abu Alsamah was growing up in Saudi Arabia, whispers of her being "different" followed her wherever she went.
In class, her hand always waved in the air, poised to answer a question. At home, she was known for trying to sneak off on adventures with her father.
"I always have an independent feeling inside of me," Abu Alsamah said. "I always want to do something girls can't do."
When the 28-year-old Westminster resident had her first child, her eyes were opened to a new world, and she couldn't look away.
"I had my daughter when I was 17," Abu Alsamah said. "I was a child, myself. After she was born, I changed myself. I just wanted to take care of her. I wanted to learn about kids."
Abu Alsamah finished her undergraduate degree in early childhood education at Saudi Arabia's University of Dammam.
She received a scholarship that allowed her to study in the United States and started attending CU in 2015.
"It was hard," Abu Alsamah said. "The system was totally different."
CU assistant professor Susan Hopewell took Abu Alsamah under her wing.
Hopewell said she learned as much from Abu Alsamah as the student learned from her.
"For example, in her first class, I assigned her to do group work with male peers without understanding how difficult it would be for a Muslim woman who had never gone to school with men to participate effectively in such a pairing," Hopewell said. "To her credit, Rawa boldly stepped outside her comfort zone and did what was asked, but I should never have put her in that situation ... Because she was brave enough to tell me about it later, I am now more sensitive to the learners in my classes."
Bounding over obstacles, Abu Alsamah graduated from CU in May and took a job at Denver's STRIVE Prep Kepner, where she teaches sixth-grade special education and co-teaches math and English language arts.
When she heard she was the first Saudi Arabian in CU's School of Education to graduate with her qualifications, Abu Alsamah broke down in tears in her classroom.
"My students cheered for me," Abu Alsamah said. "They said their teacher was famous."
More hurdles await Abu Alsamah as her visa expiration ticks down. She might be unable to work next year if she doesn't find a proper sponsor.
"A company or a school or a district needs to sponsor me and change my visa status," she said.
If her visa expires, Abu Alsamah hopes she can go back to school to get her Ph.D. at CU. If that falls through, she crosses her fingers that she can at least volunteer to spread the love and lessons her time on the Boulder campus taught her.
In the meantime, the teacher hopes to become the student again so she can learn Spanish to better reach her English language learning students. Abu Alsamah attributes her drive to learn and strategies to get through to students to her CU education.
"I have no words to thank Sue Hopewell," Abu Alsamah said. "I will try my best to deliver what she taught me to honor her name and way of teaching. She's my super model. She's like a mom, a friend, a teacher. She is always there for me."
Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-473-1106, email@example.com