Skip to main content

Grad student takes education message global

September 06, 2007

Michael Semeja, an ASU graduate student and Army sergeant, is doing his part to spread the messge of education around the globe.

Semeja, who before being called to service in Khost, Afghanistan, was a U.S. history teacher at Challenger Middle School in Chandler, Ariz., has taken the message of ASU’s “New American University” 7,852 miles away. As time permits, he’s making a difference in the lives of students at Nader Shakot Girls School in the mountainous capital city of the Khost province bordering Pakistan.

Stationed at the forward armament and refueling position on a forward operating base, Semeja supports pilots flying missions over Afghanistan. But he also finds himself slipping into “civilian mode” whenever possible, working with students whose lives are in danger of Taliban retribution every time they attend class. He has done so through impromptu lessons taught in a local marketplace, and through the donation of literally tons of school supplies – everything from pens and pencils to paper, textbooks and backpacks, shoes and other items of clothing, in addition to hygiene products.

“I am honored that my team and I are able to assist in some small way,” says Semeja, who received his bachelor’s degree in education from St. Cloud State University in Minneapolis and is just two courses shy of receiving of his master’s in elementary education from the College of Teacher Education and Leadership at ASU. “As a professional educator in my civilian life, I cannot help but try to help these kids in any way that I can. I’m not a civil affairs or public relations guy. I’m just a soldier who is trying to make a difference – and get back home to Arizona safe and sound.”

Semeja was assisted in his donation effort by students and faculty at four Valley high schools – Scottsdale Desert Mountain, Fountain Hills, Higley and Queen Creek – who raised the funds necessary to buy the much-needed supplies. The donation was motored into town in a 5-ton military vehicle. The school serves first- through sixth-graders, more than 70 percent of them girls.

“There were educators and students at the high schools who were patriotic and altruistic, and they are all heroes in my book,” says Semeja, who came to Arizona five years ago to teach social studies and expects to return to the States next summer to complete work on his graduate degree and resume teaching. “Without their help, the donation would not have been possible.

“The kids here are very similar to American students, in that they love to learn and play. But there are some differences in that this area has historically been a crossroad for merchants from all over, such as China, Persia and Old Russia. So some of these kids will learn how to be businessmen and relate to many different kinds of people.

“The female population is not historically Islamic, but the Islamic culture is definitely present, and this is still a very patriarchal society.”
While the donated supplies will help the local students in their classroom activities, Semeja also has taken his passion for education outside the school and into the marketplace in this city of 300,000 – and in outlying regions, too.

“I found a young man reading a history book at the local bazaar in Ghanzi (about 200 miles west of Khost),” Semeja says. “He asked me what some of the words were in his book and what they meant. I told him I was a history teacher back home, and he proceeded to ask me about the history of his country. We had a pretty good conversation, or ‘lesson.’ I enjoyed it, and so did he and his buddies. Some of the kids here are not formally educated in a school, so they have to do what they can, when they can.”

Sometimes, the opportunity to learn involves risks. Those risks are what Semeja and company hope to overcome by reaching out to the locals.

“The word ‘girls’ in the school name means they teach girls at Nader Shakot,” says Semeja, who built a home in Johnson Ranch near Queen Creek before shipping out. “The Taliban do not like the idea of schooling females. Students and teachers are in danger because of this, and this is exactly why schools like this are so important to the students and teachers – and it’s why it’s important we help them.

“The teachers are doing more than I am for these children. They are the ones in danger, because they are educating the children. I just hope that when these students grow up and they have to make a decision whether to join a group like the Taliban or some anti-American group, they remember the day the Americans came to their school and donated some much-needed supplies so they could learn, and that the Americans are not evil. And maybe they will try to further their education instead of joining one of these groups.

“I just happen to think that the children here in Afghanistan are the key to their nation’s future, and I am pretty sure if we do not help to educate them, the Taliban will.”

The sergeant’s efforts come as no surprise to Dianna Bonney, who taught his bilingual language education (BLE) class – a requirement for those like Semeja who are specializing their master’s degree in English as a second language (ESL) and bilingual education. The specialization is designed to help practicing teachers acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to provide up-to-date materials and lessons to their ESL and BLE students.

“Michael was very concerned about being able to finish the course requirements before being shipped to Afghanistan,” Bonney says. “It doesn’t surprise me that he is working with students in Afghanistan. He expressed such a strong desire to return to teaching after he finished his tour of duty. He shared with me numerous stories regarding his experiences working with middle school students (in Chandler) struggling to learn English, and he has great respect for the students and the courage they display in the face of considerable challenges.

“It sounds like his experiences in Afghanistan have paralleled those here in Arizona. Language should never be a barrier, and students sense that he genuinely cares.”

Semeja sums up his efforts and the experience in the framework of reaching out to those less fortunate.

“I believe these goodwill efforts will help these students remember us as good people who were here to help them,” he says. “I would like to think that my children’s generation will be friends with the people of this region. It is humbling to know that our efforts are leading the way here to open the doors for other units to create their own school supply drives for these kids. It is at times like these when I am truly proud to be an American.

“A part of me really wants to come back over here and teach these students as a professional educator, but then I realize that our students need all the help they can get – and that I should probably do my best to help future Americans.”

Editor’s note: In being interviewed for this story, Sgt. Michael Semeja said: “I am not a spokesman for the Army or the (National) Guard, and my opinions are in no way a reflection of the Army or the soldiers as a whole. We are all working as a team over here, and I am a part of the 1/285 Attack Recon Battalion, and my brothers and sisters in arms of the 1/285th ARB are my team.”