“Originally, I never wanted to work in a school.” A strange statement, coming from someone who is on the cusp of graduating from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in Education. But the unorthodox path that Meridian alumna Nijabia Thomas (’16) has taken to her current position as a paraprofessional at her alma mater only serves to underscore the fact that she is exactly where she should be.
Our children are our motivation. We’re put here to help them, that’s what education is about.
Despite her declaration that she never intended to work in a school, Nijabia actually kicked off her journey in education quite young, volunteering in the United States Department of Education’s Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Learning Centers program, beginning at age 14. The program provides a wide range of academic enrichment opportunities to students, outside of regular school hours. The program’s mission resonated with her, and she applied herself to her volunteer work with such passion and enthusiasm that she was given a paid position at age 16.
While she was working in the after-school program, district Grant Coordinator Jill Dare recognized in her an innate talent and an unmistakable affinity for working with children, and encouraged Nijabia to consider education as a career. The idea was perhaps not completely new to Nijabia, as she has a sister and other relatives who work in the field, but it was never something that she seriously considered. But now, after some soul searching and with the encouragement of Ms. Dare, Nijabia interviewed with Meridian and was hired as a paraprofessional. She began by working with fifth-grade special education students. After a while, she was moved to first grade, and then worked with pre-kindergarten students for a couple of years, before landing in her current position at the high school. She enjoys working with her 11th- and 12th-grade special education students, but hopes to again work with elementary school-age children one day, preferably first- or second-graders. “I like their independence, but also the sweet innocence of the smaller children,” she explains.
And now, not only is she doing the thing she never thought she would want to do – working in a classroom – she is excelling at it and enjoying it so much that she is working to further her career by earning her Bachelor of Education degree and becoming a teacher. Working full-time as a paraprofessional, while taking college courses virtually and in person outside of school hours might at first seem like a huge burden. But Nijabia is grateful to be on the receiving end of much love and support from both her family and the school district. “Both of my parents are definitely very encouraging, very inspirational,” she says. “They didn’t graduate from college, so they definitely pushed me to do that and pursue my career.” For the district’s part, they have been extremely flexible and accommodating in making it possible for Nijabia to log the observation hours that are required of her. “It all just fits together like a puzzle,” she says of the way her support system works.
After she graduates from SEMO, Nijabia would be thrilled to continue her career at Meridian. “This is where I’m comfortable, where I think I can get a lot of good experience,” she relates. But for Nijabia, it’s not all about career opportunities. More than that, it’s about opportunities to make a difference in the lives of Meridian students. Beginning with her time here as a student, she has seen a lot of positive change in the district, and is excited by the prospect of being a part of it. “We have administrators who love the kids – they’re actually trying to have a connection with the kids,” she says, earnestly. “Our children are our motivation,” she continues. “We’re put here to help them, that’s what education is about. We’re helping them to grow, helping them to become successful adults, whatever life path they choose.”
The best way to help students achieve a successful outcome, in Nijabia’s mind, is to ensure that they have easy access to more and better resources – like the after-school program that kick-started her career, for example. She also feels strongly that another way to remove some of the barriers to success that many Meridian students face is to encourage those who graduate to go ahead and seek out all of the knowledge and experience that they can in the world outside of Pulaski County, but to then bring that knowledge back to the community. “I’m getting my education, [but] I’m not leaving to go somewhere else to teach,” she explains. “Why can’t I bring a positive impact into my own community?” She recognizes that students who see successful adults who resemble themselves are more apt to try to emulate those adults, and wants to be that positive role model for Black kids. “I want the kids to see me, I want them to be encouraged,” she enthuses.
To Nijabia, a strong sense of community and high degree of community involvement with the school are also key pieces to the puzzle of how to help Meridian students realize the tremendous potential they possess. To her, that means “not just community as in where we live, but community as in being able to communicate with each other.” She longs to see people reaching out and making an effort to get to know and understand others outside of their comfortable circle or familiar neighborhood. Nijabia also feels strongly that when parents, caregivers and the community at large take an active interest in what students are doing in school, the students benefit greatly. “They could come out, actually see what is going on with their children,” Nijabia suggests. “Their children are bright. They’re making things to actually show, and if they don’t have anybody to show it to, it’s like ‘Oh, well. That talent’s a waste’.” But, if the community would just show up, she thinks, those students would be encouraged and motivated to keep working on developing those talents.
Nijabia obviously has a wellspring of enthusiasm within her, and no shortage of ideas about how to help students of Meridian schools take full advantage of all the talent and drive they possess. Her transformation, from the young woman who had no intention of working in a classroom to one that is proud to serve as a positive role model for her students, is proof that anything is possible, if one is given access to the right resources and plenty of love and support.