Born and raised in India, Fatima Lalani BA’19 was fortunate to learn how to read, write and speak English at a young age, thanks to years of schooling.
But her fluency in English didn’t keep her from experiencing culture shock when an arranged marriage first brought her to the United States in 2000.
“It was a completely different experience,” Lalani said. “I saw so much opportunity and free thinking that I did not have back home.”
Although she spent most of her young adult life raising three children, her dream of pursuing her bachelor’s degree never subsided. So when her youngest entered kindergarten, she decided to work her way toward that dream, first completing her GED certificate, followed by the Texas Success Initiative Assessment (TSIA) and two years at Collin College.
“Once I finished my first semester, there was no looking back,” Lalani said. “I fell in love with the whole process of learning.”
Lalani then enrolled at UT Dallas, where she earned her bachelor’s in literary studies while also balancing life as a mom of three. This past December, Lalani walked across the stage at UT Dallas to receive her diploma — a tradition and achievement that changed her sense of self.
“It was so empowering. It made me feel like anything I set my mind to, I could do,” Lalani said. “I have so many new dreams, so many new goals. I have this confidence now, that if I want it I can go out and get it, and my kids see that.”
After graduation, it didn’t take long for others to recognize her potential. In January, Lalani received an opportunity to teach conversational English to senior citizens through the Aga Khan Foundation, which works with the Plano chapter of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.
“I always wanted to be a part of the community and give back in any way I could with the skills I had,” Lalani said.
When the program turned virtual in March, Lalani’s class size grew from 10 to 18 local students and up to 80 students nationally. Lalani created her own lesson plans and used interactive games and activities to help her students practice English through conversation.
“On an online platform, the instruction has to be very generalized. I can’t go too advanced or I lose my beginners,” Lalani said. “In that limited space, I had to introduce one aspect or topic every week, that way everybody was on the same page. Patience is the key because my seniors are at an age where learning new things can be extremely challenging, but they are doing great so far.”
Most of Lalani’s students began the class knowing some English but with little confidence in their ability to carry on a fluent conversation. Through thoughtful curriculum and assignments, they learned to become more comfortable with the language.
“I gave them homework to speak in a mirror, to recite an entire recipe in English when they were cooking,” Lalani said. “I taught them how to use audio messages on WhatsApp, so now I get messages like ‘It’s raining today.’ Over time we pushed the conversation from a minute to five minutes. To me, that’s a huge accomplishment.”
This fall, Lalani was recruited to teach high school students and adults through Learning Through Borders, a global virtual school. From teaching English and literature, Lalani has been able to expand her reach to students in Panjakent, Tajikistan.
“I just feel like I’m doing something to make a difference in someone’s life and giving back to the community,” Lalani said. “I feel very grateful that I’ve been given this opportunity in the first place.”
Lalani attributes her success in teaching to Dr. Sabrina Starnaman, an associate professor of instruction in UT Dallas’ School of Arts and Humanities and one of Lalani’s mentors.
“She has always inspired me and I love the way she conducts her classes — the way she forms a connection with her students and the way she treats them with kindness,” Lalani said. “I tried my best to shadow her in my classes and it worked.”
Lalani’s passion for teaching and learning has only continued to grow, and her dreams to continue her education have taken on new life.
“The dream is to get my master’s and to teach at a community college,” Lalani said. “I’m a firm believer in author Paulo Coelho’s philosophy that if you want something, the entire universe conspires to make it happen for you.”