Teaching is next lesson for MU grad

Monday, May 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:48 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Some people are content to let life happen to them. Others are compelled to pursue every possible opportunity.

Nabiha Calcuttawala is one of those people. Somebody with drive, with ambition and a huge need to constantly help people. A 21-year-old raised middle-class in Hannibal, she graduated Sunday from MU with a degree in communications and a minor in sociology. But she’s not going to St. Louis for a job in advertising, or back to live in her cushy home to save money.

Instead, she’s uprooting herself and traveling nearly 800 miles to southern Louisiana to work in an underprivileged school district for a nationwide program called Teach for America.

Teach for America, affiliated with AmeriCorps, puts college seniors through a rigorous interview process and then plunks them in underfunded schools across the country for two years. According to the organization’s Web site, the average applicant has a 3.5 GPA and is incredibly involved on campus.

Calcuttawala is involved in a variety of service organizations and serves as the service chair of her honor fraternity, Phi Sigma Pi. She volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club and the Mid-Missouri Crisis phone line and also works with MU’s Alternative Spring Break program. During spring break, she helped tutor children in the Head Start program on the Mississippi Delta for a week. Last year, she spent her spring break teaching kids in Española, New Mexico. She graduated with her Honors Certificate and Latin honors. And sometimes, she even makes time to sleep.

“I’m living,” Calcuttawala jokes.

She’s always been involved with social programs, and Teach for America is everything she’s ever wanted, she says.

“I take it on myself, as an obligation to society or a responsibility, to give back,” Calcuttawala says.

On June 8,she’ll leave her home to travel to an intensive training session in Houston where the work days can last as long as 18 hours. Shortly after, she’ll pack her bags again and land in rural southern Louisiana. She still doesn’t know her school district, or her salary or where exactly she’ll live yet. She won’t find any of that out until she gets to Houston.

All she knows is that she’ll have the opportunity to make a difference in some children’s lives. If she affects one, she says, then it’s worth it.

Taking a chance to improve the lives of others is a mantra that is the basis of Calcuttawala’s existence. In 1975, her parents came from India to further their education and provide more opportunities for the children they knew they’d soon have.

In Bombay, India, her parents had a cared-for existence, replete with servants and many opportunities for higher education. Her mother, Sakina, earned a bachelor’s degree, and her father, Kaizar, had two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree. They left more than 30 family members for America. Regardless of Kaizar’s extensive education, he was forced to take a job in a factory on an assembly line. For that reason, Nabiha Calcuttawala asserts that no job is ever below her.

“My parents raised me to know that we have opportunities,” Nabiha Calcuttawala said. Her father is now a chemical engineer at that same plant.

She and her older brother Rahil are first-generation Americans. She was the only Indian girl in most of her classes growing up.

“I fit in the best way an Indian in Missouri can,” she says.

“My parents’ work ethic and humanitarianism play into my life,” she says. “I was taught that everyone’s equal. But it’s very easy to be oppressed or stereotyped. I haven’t dealt with that a lot, but it does play into a lot of things.”

In Louisiana, Nabiha Calcuttawala will face a different ethnic mix and once again, she’ll remain the minority. But she doesn’t dwell on that. Her objective will be to help as many people as she can.

“Assimilating to a new lifestyle is not a fear,” she says. “I’m not there to challenge myself, but to challenge the kids.”

The children in these school districts are neglected, she says.

“I need to wake up every morning and remember what I’m here for,” she says. She’s very passionate about the “ills of society” and their roots in education.

She feels that some schools don’t give children a chance to succeed, or let them know they can make something of themselves, or even instill self worth. For these children, life skills are not taught. For a young, impressionable kid, she says, that sometimes translates into children who know more about drugs than books.

Nabiha Calcuttawala wants to show the kids that they have the same opportunities her parents always made sure she had.

“These kids have a chance,” she says. “Some kids have problems at home, which affect them at school. They just need to know that people do care.”

She knows what it’s like to be inspired in school and how that can change the path of one’s entire life. When she was in second grade, she says she didn’t care about school. Her parents pushed the school to let her skip a grade to challenge her. She spent one quarter in third grade, then jumped to fourth. The combination of her parents’ encouragement and her newfound fascination with learning set the stage for her belief that education can change your life.

“Ever since I realized the world was not made of rainbows and cheese puffs, I started questioning. Things like, ‘Why is there crime?’ ” she says. She decided then to “start from the root” and volunteer at in the education system. Ever since this realization in high school, she’s been volunteering as a tutor and mentor.

“Nabiha is one of the hardest-working people I have had the opportunity to work with,” says Jenn Stuth, who worked with Nabiha Calcuttawala as an MU Summer Welcome leader last summer. “She just puts everyone around her at ease because of her warm and inviting presence. I have seen her lead groups of strangers and peers, being very successful and effective in both situations. She is also just a really fun, and funny, person to just relax with. I really respect her for all of her accomplishments on campus and in the community.” More than 10,000 students have volunteered to live at near-poverty levels for the greater good since 1990 as part of Teach for America. Nabiha Calcuttawala is prepared — and overjoyed — to join those ranks.

She expects Teach for America to be her greatest learning experience and looks forward to learning from her elementary school class.

“These kids are so much smarter,” she says. “They have such different life experiences.”

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