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Umussahar Khatri

College: Macaulay Honors College | Queens College
Awards: Math for America Fellowship, 2012

Calculating Her Math Career

Umussahar "Sahar" Khatri was just 5 when she and her mother left Pakistan to join her father, who had established himself in Queens, N.Y. As the oldest of five children in a traditional family, she grew up tutoring her siblings and serving as a bridge between countries and cultures old and new. Those two forces shaped her studies, campus activism and decision to become a New York City public school math teacher.

As she graduates in 2012 with a BS in mathematics with a concentration in secondary education from Macaulay Honors College at Queens College, Khatri is one of four CUNY students in 2012 to capture a $100,000 Math for America (MƒA) Fellowship. This highly selective, five-year program is for outstanding mathematics students who commit to teaching in New York City's public secondary schools. The others are from City College: Yekaterina Garmash and Michael McDonald (2012) and Mallory Torres Villa (2011).

This year's 22 New York City Math for America Fellows all will receive a full-tuition scholarship for a master's degree in secondary mathematics education at City College of New York, which replaces New York University and Bard College as MƒA's host institution. Other incoming MƒA students earned their bachelor's degrees at schools including Boston, Bucknell, Northwestern, SUNY-Stony Brook and Wesleyan Universities, Carleton College and the College of William & Mary.

MƒA, a privately funded nonprofit that operates in seven U.S. cities, switched to City College because it wanted a partnership with a public university in New York. MƒA has said it was impressed with City College's math and math education faculty and secondary math education program.

MƒA and CUNY are designing a three-semester master's program that is tailored to mathematically sophisticated students. MƒA fellows will complete their degree during year one of the five-year fellowship. The program's goal is to provide a clinical training experience to prepare MƒA fellows for the rigors of the New York City classroom.

But more than a specialized master's program separates Math for America from other organizations that encourage people to go into public school teaching. In New York, MƒA fellows receive a $30,000 stipend in the first year and $70,000 paid over the next four years, when fellows teach full-time and earn a teacher's salary.

This hefty stipend is an incentive for fellows to stick it out through the difficult first years of teaching, when attrition of inexperienced teachers is highest. MƒA also provides mentoring and professional development during the five fellowship years; studies have shown that lack of support is a key factor in decisions to quit teaching.

Education was an early passion as Khatri took CUNY College Now classes at Queens College through Benjamin N. Cardozo High School. "I was really inspired by my teachers," she says, adding that she tries to bring the same verve to her classes.

As a senior in Queens College's teacher-preparation program, she taught sixth- and eighth-grade mathematics at I.S. 499, the Queens College School for Math, Science and Technology, then geometry at Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical High School in Jamaica, Queens. She liked having double periods with the middle-school students but also enjoyed the more content-specific, higher-level subject in high school. In addition, she coached high school math students through the nonprofit Let's Get Ready program and also was a private math tutor.

"I didn't realize how much work went into being a teacher," she says. "It's not only about the lesson at the moment; it's the planning, the interaction with students during the session, and then reflecting on what you've done."

As a student teacher, she says, "I teach the same lesson twice, so I think on what I taught and how to modify it. I'm getting comfortable with my students and the whole planning and post-planning process."

MƒA attracted her because most other postgraduate fellowships - including those by the city department of education - are designed for career-changers who lack pedagogical training. Khatri, in contrast, is graduating with New York State teacher certification.

MƒA offers "a lot of support that you have to have, especially as a new teacher. And mental support, because it's an overwhelming field," she says. "I also like that the master's is in one year, so that you're able to focus on the school aspect. A lot of my friends are teaching full time and also are full-time graduate students. That's a lot to cope with."

The money doesn't hurt, either. "It's wonderful," she says.

Khatri says that high school "is always transitional for everyone," but following 9/11, "for me, it was finding my identity as both Muslim and American. Most schools where I've studied, observed and done fieldwork are so multicultural, it helps."

Through Macaulay's Opportunities Fund, she deepened her knowledge of Arabic, which she had studied on her own for three years, at the World Learning Center in Muscat, Oman. "It's an amazing place and very safe," she says. "I'm planning on going back and studying more seriously. In academic courses, you learn classical Arabic, but each place has its own colloquial usage, so speaking in real-life interactions is different."

At Queens College, she was vice president of the Muslim Students Association and a student facilitator at the Center for Ethnic, Racial and Religious Understanding, which promotes dialogue. Through the center, she was involved in dialogue concerning the controversy over Park 51, the proposed Islamic cultural center near the World Trade Center, while engaging in a variety of issues ranging from immigration (after Arizona enacted an aggressive law), to Palestine and Israel, to the economic crisis, homelessness, "and stereotyping in general." Her campus activism included work with other organizations such as Hillel.

At home, she speaks Urdu as well as English, and she has acquired a working proficiency in Spanish. A sister, Wajiha, just finished her freshman year at Queens. A brother and sister are in high school; her youngest sibling is 5.

"I walked through the doors of Queens College very determined to become a teacher from the very first day," she says. "Four years later, I am glad to see it become a reality with the support of faculty and advisors in the Math and Education Departments, through my fieldwork, particularly student teaching, and now through this amazing fellowship. Now, I am determined to not only be a teacher, but also to be someone who inspires students to reach their full potential."