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Great teachers change lives

Great teachers can be life changers–like the Kenyan schoolteacher nominated in 2009 by Zawadi Lemayian ‘09, now a Sloan PhD student. As a Masai girl, she had just a 20 percent chance of spending even one day in a classroom. Yet she made it to college with the help of her teacher, Lawrence Njoroge, who devoted personal time to tutoring students and helping them apply. Lemayian wrote in her recommendation, “Your belief in my abilities has encouraged me to pursue endeavors I would otherwise never have imagined possible.”

O’Toole’s influence on Mendoza was just as great. He was an accidental American: his Bolivian parents happened to be in the United States when he was born, but he grew up in his homeland. After he won a national mathematics contest, his parents took a chance and sent him to live in the States with a family from the same village. He spoke no English, and his living arrangement soon dissolved. O’Toole quietly began sharing her lunch with ­Mendoza and helped him make living arrangements while he finished high school. He began teaching himself English by using his mathematics and physics textbooks: he could understand the equations and began connecting words to numbers. In his senior year, O’Toole saw that his limited English was a potential college killer, so she took away his textbooks and forced him to speak and write English for five months. It worked.

“She completely changed my life,” says Mendoza. “I came to America with no English and no family, and she gave me a family, she taught me how to learn. I’m here because of her, studying at MIT.”

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