As one of only nine students in the nation, Neag School of Education student Symone James, eighth semester elementary education major was named this year's Nancy Foundation scholar for elementary education.
The Nancy Larson Foundation, founded in 2007 by Nancy Larson, an author of Saxon Math K-4, a nationally used textbook, sponsors scholarships for college students aspiring to teach elementary education.
The application for the scholarship requires applicants include their community service activities and experiences working with children; it is also very competitive.
James said she found the scholarship randomly while online and applied quickly, uncertain of what the results might be.
Several hundreds of students apply each year. Once the list is narrowed down to 70 students, the selection committee proceeds to decide candidates.
Each student who wins receives a $1,000 scholarship.
Usually, at least five people are selected for the scholarship.
"This year we had the most scholarships ever given," LeAnn Harmon, the foundation's communications liaison said.
Three students from UConn won in 2011 and 2014 before James.
Harmon said the selection committee, who fly in once a year to choose winners, work with a scoring rubric that evaluates the applicant's GPA, community and personal narrative and experiences working with children.
Harmon said James’ application was very compelling, “She had a lot of interesting experiences in personal and community service.”
The foundation's plans are to provide winners eligibility for other benefits in the future once they start their careers in teaching.
"I was surprised, excited and mostly grateful! Fortunately, my parents pay for me to attend UConn so any way that I could lessen the financial burden is a big help," James said after hearing of her win.
As a resident of West Haven, James said she appreciated the fact that the woman who called her upon being accepted for the scholarship was also from her hometown.
"It was a special connection," James said.
As a person who identifies as black, James said her parents who are from Jamaica were never able to obtain a college degree.
"Growing up they stressed the importance of education to my sister and I”, James said. "They always provided unwavering support which I think was, and is, essential to any successes I’ve had in my education.
James said her father taught her and her older sister to read before she started grade school.
While her parents were a great support, she hopes more programs can emulate these methods.
While Neag provides a lot of opportunities for development and support, she added, James said student teachers definitely have a lot they have to do on their own.
James’ past accomplishments include being the recipient of the Degnan Family Scholarship, Lou Irvin scholarship and being a proud member of the Greater New England Association of Black Student Educators.
James is also the secretary in a Neag program that started in the summer of 2015 called Leadership In Diversity, a group to support students of color who want to be educators or students of color who are currently in the program.
"It's nice to have a platform in such an important group," James said.
While James has many accomplishments, she says it isn't easy with all the positions she holds but still manages to complete her duties.
"As a student teacher, you're still taking in the role of teacher," James said.
James is a member of LID, president of the dance group Nubian Foxes, works at the African American Cultural Center and Husky Sport, which is a program that uses nutrition, and sports to teach students in school and outside community houses.
As a current student teacher in an urban district, James said, race is important to apply in the classroom.
"While it presents additional challenges to learning how to be a teacher,” James said, “it is also so rewarding when I make connections to the students and find ways that I can incorporate their personal experiences into the classroom."
James said it is crucial that she implements these practices because, "too often the experiences of these majorly black and brown students are not appreciated or authentically acknowledged."
The last time a student of color who identifies as black received the Nancy Larson scholarship was in 2012.
James compared her many accomplishments today to the ones when she was younger.
James said she looks back now and wonders if the student of the month awards she received in middle school three years in a row were given because of who she was or who they didn't expect her to be.
After this semester, James will complete her final year at UConn with her masters in the Integrated Bachelor's/Master's Teacher Education Program.
James hopes to teach in an urban district then return to UConn and teach as a professor while incorporating topics of diversity and race, by using, "Authentic and rich conversation related to race and to assist students in the classroom," James said.
She said student teachers teach different types of classes but lack to guide students to apply their own experiences in the classroom.
"We need to recognize and appreciate the value that students bring as well as understand ourselves that they do bring value," James said.
She said on her first day of student teaching, a black student in her class approached her and shared that he felt another child had been racist toward him.
"I couldn’t help but to ask myself, 'Would he have approached me if we weren’t the same race?” James said, "Following this incident I realized that it is so important for me to actively recognize the ways my identities will influence my teaching experience and how the students receive it.
James said it's nice to have an advisor of color that might relate to her experiences and hopes to also be a support for other students like herself.
"I hope to impact my students by not only helping them grow as students but also individuals," James said, "I want to authentically recognize and appreciate the value that they bring to our classroom and not just what I have to offer as their teacher."
Harmon said James is an excellent candidate and epitomizes exactly what the foundation was looking for.