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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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Rojina Tobya posed on campus in May 2022 for her liberal studies graduation photo. Rojina Tobya posed on campus in May 2022 for her liberal studies graduation photo.

Credential Student Strives To Be The Teacher She Once Needed

One of six Chaldean students in SDSU’s Cajon Valley Cohort, Rojina Tobya aspires to be a welcoming face for newcomers.
By Michael Klitzing

Rojina Tobya was 14 when she came to the U.S. and found herself dropped into a middle school where everything — even the alphabet — was totally unfamiliar. A member of the Iraqi Chaldean community, she spoke Chaldean and Arabic, but not a word of English.


“That was really hard for me, especially the first year,” she recalls. “I remember the feeling of sitting in the classroom and not understanding anything.”


Not one teacher during her schooling spoke Tobya’s native language. Nor could they fully understand the trauma she was still processing. 


Back in Iraq, her father and other family members had been kidnapped for ransom by the Islamic State (IS) militant organization. They were returned safely, thankfully, but the episode made it clear it was time to leave. The family moved first to Lebanon, then to the U.S. in 2010.


"There were a lot of hard times,” Tobya said. “But I didn’t give up.”


Thanks to her perseverance, she’ll soon be leading her own classroom. Her goal? To be the teacher she wishes she had as a newly arrived teenager.


Tobya, a 2022 graduate of San Diego State University’s Liberal Studies program, is one of six Chaldean students currently completing their student teaching in SDSU’s Cajon Valley Cohort. The group trains teachers in El Cajon, home to a growing community of more than 15,000 Chaldeans.


“I want to be able to help all the newcomers with their needs,” Tobya said. “Either the language or helping parents to understand. Honestly, my biggest hope is making a strong connection with the families. If we have that, then we'll help students be successful.”


Meaningful Representation


The Chaldean representation this year is the largest the Cajon Valley Cohort has ever seen, according to cohort leader and lecturer Laura Craig.


“At SDSU, we want to prepare diverse teaching populations that align with the students in the classrooms they are serving,” Craig said. “The diversity in our cohort has been a huge asset to students, teachers, and family members in Cajon Valley this year. Many of our students have been able to relate to newcomers who are attending school for the first time or are learning instruction in English for the first time. 


“In addition, by telling stories, sharing culture, traditions and holidays in our online classes, our cohort has been able to learn from one another so that as new teachers they all can best serve their students.”


Michael Serban, director of the Family and Community Engagement Office in the Cajon Valley Union School District, agrees. His office works to build relationships between district staff and parents — often newcomers from Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan — using a team of liaisons from those communities. Family and Community Engagement recently began partnering with Craig to provide workshops for Cajon Valley Cohort student teachers. 


“I remember we visited Dearborn, Michigan, which is really 30 years ahead of Cajon Valley in terms of immigration,” Serban said. “When we went there, individuals from Iraq and Syria were superintendents, principals and teachers. So we got to see this evolution of what El Cajon was soon to be. 


“Just that ability to see and know that ‘We can do it’ and that it’s possible — it’s a game-changer in my opinion."


Success Story


Tobya and her family are a compelling example of what’s possible. When she arrived in the U.S., she shared a bedroom with five siblings while her father worked to provide for the family. Eventually, he was able to earn enough to move the family out of a cramped apartment and into their own house.


As a high school student, Tobya learned English thanks to the long hours spent at the library. She later worked for seven years in an extended day program in El Cajon, often helping parents with translation and filling out forms and applications.


Tobya’s sister Reva recently graduated from SDSU’s School of Social Work. Another sister, Rotana, is at the university studying accounting. 


Given the family's remarkable achievement, "My dad's really proud of us,” she said. “He didn't have the opportunity to graduate in Iraq, and he just worked really hard for us.”


Tobya’s studies have been supported by her mother and her husband who help watch her 1-year-old son DeAndre while she completes her student teaching. She has also been bolstered by the support of her Chaldean cohort-mates who are taking this journey with her.


“Our community is a little bit different, you know — our thinking, where we come from, our experiences,” Tobya said. “We have all been through so many things. It’s great to see other people from my community who also want to be teachers.”