International student Fatima Jalali-Tehran, an ESL teacher, worked three jobs, studied full-time, cared for two children and still found time to volunteer while pursuing a master's degree in education. She will cross the convocation stage on Oct. 6 to receive her degree.
Photo: Greg Ehlers

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Passion fuels perseverance, success and new ESL curriculum ideas for immigrants

October 03, 2017
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By Diane Luckow

Two years ago, Fatima Jalali-Tehrani, an American living in Dubai, encountered unexpected visa difficulties after registering at SFU to begin a master of education.

Undaunted, she asked her supervisor, SFU lecturer Gillian Judson, if she would adapt the course material so she could learn it online until she received visas for her two children, who were born in Iran. Judson agreed.

“Fatima never gave up hope, and she never wavered in her desire to complete the program,” says Judson. “It wasn’t until the end of the semester that Fatima was approved to come.”

The visas were only the first of Jalali-Tehrani’s challenges, however. A single mom, she rose each morning at 3 a.m. to study until 6 a.m. before readying her two children, Hafez, 2, and Sahba, 13, for daycare and school. In addition to her classes and studies, she worked three jobs to make ends meet, yet also found time to volunteer her skills as an English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher, teaching Syrian refugees.

She is a real role model for international students—she is brave beyond belief.

—Gillian Judson, SFU lecturer

“I was overwhelmed sometimes,” admits Jalali-Tehrani, who has taught ESL in Iran, China and the United Arab Emirates. “But the key for me to go through all that and succeed was my passion for what I was doing as a mom, a teacher and a student.”

Despite her busy schedule, she scored a cumulative 3.94 grade point average (out of a possible 4.33), and her final comprehensive presentation detailing her master’s program portfolio was, says Judson, “exceptional. She is a real role model for international students—she is brave beyond belief.”

As Jalali-Tehrani pursued her studies and volunteer work, she began to realize she could apply what she was learning to improve ESL instruction in ways that could help refugees and immigrants better adjust to their new lives in Canada.

“When you move to a new culture, you have to adopt a new identity,” says Jalali-Tehrani, who was struck by the difficulties Syrian women were experiencing as their traditional family roles changed and they tried to find alternate roles in Canadian society.

With an immigrant background herself (her mother is American, her father Iranian) and having lived much of her life in Iran, Jalali-Tehrani understands how difficult it can be to establish a bridge between your own culture and the new. Now, she’s beginning an SFU PhD in education to research how she might develop an ESL curriculum that can help immigrants find a new identity they’re happy with.

“I want to teach not just the course content, but how to learn it,” she says. “I feel there must be changes that can be made for the better.

“I’m in a unique position to observe problems, and this is where I need to focus my work.”