August 2018 | By Joe Snell | Photos Contributed
Chicago, IL – Ramina Samuel’s heart was racing as she walked toward her new office at Niles North High School earlier this August. For years, the Assyrian Iraqi native had grown accustomed to filling part-time and temporary counseling positions in the Chicagoland area. Now, she is a full-time counselor at Niles North High School, a public school within Chicago’s largely Assyrian populated District 219. She is the first Assyrian to hold the position in the district’s history.
It is a position she has dreamed of since arriving with her family to Chicago from Dohuk, Iraq in 2004. In her first year in the Chicago public school system, Samuel was held back a year into eighth grade. That experience would encourage her to help students who were also struggling with their transition into the American education system.
“Growing up in Chicago, it was difficult for me to go through the whole school system,” Samuel said. “In Iraq, your grade point average decides what field you are going to. All of a sudden in the US, I had so many opportunities. I could choose so many different colleges in so many different fields. I was not ready for that. I think my parents were not ready for that.”
After completing her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2012, Samuel worked a year as a pre-kindergarten through middle school substitute teacher before starting her masters degree at National Louis University. Samuel wanted to tackle education disparity in Chicago’s immigrant communities with a focus on students with limited English proficiency and also those who came from vulnerable backgrounds.
“When students come here, a lot of these schools are not aware of what kind of background they’ve had,” she said. “A lot of these kids have missed months or even years of schooling, especially those that went to areas where there was persecution or war. When those children come here, they are placed into grades matching their age. I wanted to give high school students what was not always available to me as a first generation immigrant.”
Through her graduate program, she was set up with a number of temporary opportunities including a position at Maine East High School as well as Madison Elementary in Skokie.
During her one year practicum, she worked at Glenbrook North High School. It was during this time that she was assigned her first Assyrian student.
“An Assyrian student needed help with FAFSA and the parents were assigned to me,” Samuel said. “The mom was very surprised when she found out I was Assyrian. She was glad that there was someone who was speaking to her in her own language and who was willing to help. It made me more sure that helping Assyrians is what I wanted to do.”
After graduating, Samuel worked at two non-profit organizations, West 40 and Mosaic Therapy. The positions taught her about strategies in alternative learning and allowed her to help students with Arabic and Assyrian as their first languages.
At the end of June 2018, Ramina heard about an opening as a school counselor at Niles North High School.
At the time, she wasn’t even looking for a new position, focusing instead on planning her upcoming wedding. After heavy encouragement, however, she finally did apply. It was the only school she would apply for this summer and she admitted not expecting a call back.
Ramina did receive a call back, though. The week of her wedding. It was also the week her close childhood friend was hospitalized and would later pass away from cancer. Despite a hectic week including two rounds of interviews, she was selected for the role.
“Receiving the position was very overwhelming,” she said. “This was one of my biggest goals but I didn’t expect it to happen for a few more years. For this to happen and for me to be able to work in a community where I can share my experience as an immigrant and my skills in culture and language, it was very exciting.”
Niles North High School is part of District 219. The district has made significant strides in recent years to address a growing Assyrian community, including the addition of Assyrian Naema Abraham on the school board and the formation of an Assyrian parent group.
Samuel hopes to get more Assyrian parents more involved through the new parent group.
“A lot of the lack of Assyrian parent involvement within the schools comes from our culture,” Samuel said. “We entirely entrust schools with our kids. Assyrian parents might show up to the school once or twice versus other parents we work with that are involved in every step of the way, including scheduling classes and special activities and career planning.”
In her new role, Samuel will provide guidance to students from ninth through twelfth grades. She is one of only a few counselors at Niles North that has English Language Learning (ELL) students in her caseload.
As a former ELL student herself, Samuel hopes to make these students feel more comfortable by relating to their situations.
“Students can finally see someone in a counselor position where they can see themselves,” Samuel said. “This doesn’t just apply to Assyrians. Working with immigrant students, it’s important for them to relate. I think it’s really nice for them to see that they can get to that higher education level.”