USM alumna awarded Fulbright to deepen understanding of immigrants

Karina and man standing

For Karina Escajeda ’98 — who teaches Iraqi and Syrian children in her Maine hometown  — earning a trip abroad to better understand her growing immigrant communities took a leap of faith.

She went online. She found applications on Facebook. And she leapt.

She applied for two prestigious grants — including a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching — and she received them both. Escajeda is spending the summer learning Arabic language and immersing herself in the desert culture of the Sinai. And next spring she’ll be in Greece, learning how that country is coping and thriving with a growing refugee community.

Besides helping her better reach students in Augusta, Maine, she wants to help teachers as immigrants arrive in many of New England’s smaller communities.

Sinai beach landscape

“They’re often moving into spaces where teachers in communities aren’t sure how to accommodate these learners,” said Escajeda, who earned a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Southern Maine in 1998.

In June, she travelled to Egypt’s Arabic School of Dahab. The school, located on the Gulf of Aqaba not far from the southern tip of Israel, will build on a single semester of Arabic language that Escajeda had previously taken.

Escajeda hopes she’ll be able to communicate better with her students in Augusta, which has about 500 Iraqi immigrants and a growing number of Syrians. Besides expanding her 500-word Arabic vocabulary, she hopes that her exposure to the Middle East — including its climate — will deepen her rapport with the people she helps.

She’s experienced it before.

“It is hot, hot like I have never experienced anywhere else in the world, hot like when you breathe it hurts,” she said. “It’s an experience that many of my students remember and know very deeply from their childhood. We’ll have a common bonding experience.”

Karina standing next to rocks

The Egypt experience is being paid for by a Fund For Teachers grant, something that she applied for at the same time she applied for the Fulbright.

She expected to receive neither award, but she applied anyway.

“It was a total leap of faith,” she said. Notice of the Fulbright, one of only 25 in teaching, came in April.

“The Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Semester Research Program is a professional development opportunity, which provides U.S. K-12 educators the opportunity to travel to one of 12 countries for three to six months of independent study and professional development, during which they learn and share educational practices with their peers, to better prepare students for successful and responsible participation in the global economy,” according to a U.S. Department of State press release.

For this journey, Escajeda will head to Greece’s Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in January 2020. She’ll spend five months there, likely mixing school work with research and site visits. Much of her plan examines the demographics of the area, which is similarly monocultural to her town of Augusta. Both areas, on a far different scale, have experienced resistance to the arrival of immigrants. 

“I will be examining how we train teachers to teach these students and how we partner and work with funding agencies,” she said. Ideally, she will be able to return to Maine with new research and guidance for teaching new arrivals.

It’s the kind of work that she first pursued at USM.

“My department and my connection with my professors was really close,” she said. “I really worked hard to have close relationships with profs who knew me.”

While she was a student, she had a semester in Mexico City, worked on a National Science Foundation grant and applied to UCLA for graduate work.

“The work that I did in Linguistics — working with second language learners — was a huge part of my application to UCLA’s applied linguistics department. I already had that real-world experience, working with second language learners as an undergraduate. USM was absolutely instrumental in setting me up with that and making me aware of all of the amazing diversity right here in Maine.”

Escajeda attended UCLA for a year, earned a teaching certificate from the University of California Bakersfield and a master’s degree in educational administration. She taught in a variety of places before heading back to Maine several years ago.

She returned to her hometown schools in Augusta in 2017.

“USM was absolutely instrumental in setting me up with that and making me aware of all of the amazing diversity right here in Maine,” she said.

Story by Daniel Hartill, USM Public Affairs

Photographs courtesy of Karina Escajeda ’98