Whether she’s faced with a classroom of culturally diverse fourth-graders or an after-school group from Hartford’s North End, UConn senior Symone James ’16 (ED) has one goal in mind: to able to relate to every student.
James is the recipient of the Degnan Family Scholarship, an award funded by James and Elizabeth Degnan, both UConn graduates. The scholarship was established by the couple in 2013 to support one academically outstanding student in the Neag School’s Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s (IB/M) Program for his or her junior, senior, and graduate years.
Elizabeth “Beth” Degnan ’87 (CLAS) and her husband, James ’87 (CLAS), created the scholarship fund as a way to give back to the community. They chose to support the Neag School specifically, Beth Degnan says, because the graduates of the School’s IB/M program go on to serve as schoolteachers who will ultimately change the lives of many children.
She says James was specifically chosen for her energy, intelligence, and motivation in the IB/M program.
“This scholarship will financially assist one person to reach [his or] her educational goals. However, that one person will ultimately educate hundreds of others,” she says. “That seems like a pretty good return on an investment to us.”
For James, an elementary education major from West Haven, Conn., becoming a teacher is not a newfound dream. Throughout her childhood, James’ parents – both emigrants from Jamaica – emphasized the importance of education because it was something they never got to pursue to the extent they desired. James’ mother, a certified nursing assistant, came to the United States at age 11 and began working to escape an abusive household. Her father, a skilled machinist, worked hard to put himself through college, but didn’t quite finish.
“My parents lived their education through me and my sister,” James says. Her 24-year-old sister, Brittney, a graduate of Pace University, now works as a program teacher at a community center in Queens, N.Y.
Her Jamaican heritage, James says, is something that she is conscious of when she envisions herself as an educator. Thanks to the IB/M program, she says she understands what being a teacher of color means for herself and for her students, as she has been an integral part of class discussions regarding the demand for more classroom diversity.
“My favorite aspect of the [IB/M] program is in the ways it has helped to foster my own personal growth and self-reflection,” she says.
Experiencing her parents’ desire for their children to have a quality education made James want to become a teacher herself. She wants to work with schoolchildren in kindergarten through second grade, where she thinks she can have the greatest impact on her students’ learning and development.
For James, learning how to connect effectively with children at varying stages of behavioral and intellectual development began even before she joined the Neag School’s IB/M program. As a freshman, James joined Husky Sport, a Neag School service learning program that teaches schoolchildren in Hartford about nutrition and life skills through active games and sports.
Students in the program are from the city’s North End, a community that faces economic disparities. But James didn’t enter the program with the mindset of “saving” these students – she just wanted to build a positive relationship with them.
“This scholarship will financially assist one person to reach [his or] her educational goals. However, that one person will ultimately educate hundreds of others. That seems like a pretty good return on an investment to us.”
– Beth Degnan ’87 (CLAS), on why she and her husband,
James ’87 (CLAS), established the Degnan Family Scholarship
“Don’t go in with preconceived notions that you’re going to help somebody. It interferes with your level of interaction,” James says. “Just get to know them for them, and you’ll end up impacting their lives.”
James remembers a day when her task was to teach a sixth-grader to score a goal in a game of soccer. The kicker? The student was autistic and unable to speak. Over and over again, James demonstrated how to kick the ball and direct it toward the goal. She recalls the moment when the student finally scored as one of her proudest career memories.
“It’s so gratifying when you can break across that barrier and get a student to have an ‘aha’ moment, especially when they can’t speak,” she says.
Later, through her student teaching experience in the IB/M program, James had additional opportunities to see what other sorts of language and cultural barriers students might face in the classroom. The level of cultural diversity at both Bowers Elementary in Manchester and W.B. Sweeney Elementary in Windham, where James served as a student teacher, challenged her to further consider how she might best serve students from many different backgrounds. For instance, many of the first-graders at Sweeney with whom James worked spoke English as a second language. Meanwhile, at Bowers, some of the fourth-graders James encountered while student teaching would come to school tired and hungry, having not had breakfast.
Aside from her teaching endeavors, James is the president of Nubian Foxes, a Caribbean and African dancing group at UConn, and also works for the African-American Cultural Center and Leadership in Diversity, a program that supports minority students on campus.
As a Jamaican-American, she finds it important to be involved in programs supporting minority students. Her involvement extends to the classroom, too, where she says she feels a certain level of pressure to share her views with the class, especially if minority students are underrepresented.
“As a minority student, there’s a spotlight on you when you’re discussing diversity and social issues in class,” she says. “I feel it’s my duty to share my perspective.”
It is a perspective that James knows will also ultimately be valuable when it comes to teaching young children. She says she makes it her priority to get to know all of the children with whom she works so that she can identify with each one.
That is exactly what she did during her time in Husky Sport with one sixth-grader who had behavioral issues, and faced problems at home. James approached the child with her seemingly simple approach – to just try talking to her. It didn’t take long for James to discover the child had a passion for hair styling. A connection was formed. The student opened up, coming to depend on James for a listening ear and a helping hand.
“A teacher really can be that one person for students, that one person who can support them,” she says.
Not only does James plan on impacting children’s lives, but she also hopes to one day be able to support aspiring educators such as herself.
“The Degnans’ kindness reminds me that in the future,” she says, “I, too, have a responsibility to help those who come behind me to succeed.”
Learn more here about how you can help to support future schoolteachers and other Neag School students.