By Fatoumata Ceesay
Samantha Baruah, the new associate director of UW–Madison’s Teacher Education Center, has been working for the past 11 years to make education more accessible and equitable on a local and national scale.
Born in Vietnam, Baruah and her mother immigrated to the United States in 1980 as political refugees. She was two years old and grew up in a low-income household in Iowa. From a young age, she understood how that could affect a person’s education.
“In my K–12 experience, I was that child who was on free and reduced lunch and Reading Recovery,” Baruah says. “When I was on free and reduced lunch, we had different color lunch tickets. So everybody knew who the poor kids were. There are certain stigmas associated with that.”
Baruah grew up believing she had to fit an imagined convention of what an Asian person could be, and so she thought she wanted to be a scientist.
“It was falling into that trap of the stereotype of an Asian person being good at math,” she says. “I thought that was the path I was supposed to go on.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Iowa, Baruah had a conversation with a friend that convinced her to run for a seat on the school board.
“I was actually on my way to a Steve Miller Band concert with some friends, and a friend of mine said that there were three seats open on the school board and that only one person had turned in their paperwork,” Baruah says. “She said, ‘You really care about education, and you complain a lot about education. How about you actually do something about it?’ And so I did. I got the paperwork, got the required number of signatures, and turned in my application.”
Despite the initial lack of candidates, she had to run a real campaign.
“It turned out that it was actually going to be a competitive race,” she recalls. “I thought it was going to be really easy. If I remember correctly, I think there were 11 people. At some point, people dropped out after they had declared, but there were just three seats open, so I knew I was going to have to work for it now. But it was a great experience. It really made me solidify why I think education is such an important aspect of everybody’s life.”
Baruah served on the school board from 2008 until 2015, and she realizes that education was what got her out of poverty.
“Education has allowed me to have certain privileges,” she says. “For me, it’s very important that we invest in education, particularly for children of marginalized populations, because we know that the investment in education and in kids will pay dividends down the road. Whether that is higher earning power, lower incarceration rates, [or] just purely on the academic side of self-enlightenment and academic achievement and self-worth. Education has this opportunity to open so many doors for people.”
Baruah believes her experiences prepared her for her role at the Teacher Education Center.
“[My school board experience] gave me a greater appreciation for different perspectives. It gave me an appreciation for the need for intentionality of process and purpose,” she says. “Being intentional on naming what you’re doing so that there’s no question or interpretation as to what your purpose is — that’s one of the things that I learned being a school board member. I believe humor is also important when trying to work in a system for the betterment of kids.”
As for the Teacher Education Center, Baruah is excited to help create future teachers.
“We’ve been working with all of our teacher preparation programs to bring them together and think about cross-programmatic initiatives,” she says. “There are such great initiatives that individual programs are developing, and what the Teacher Education Center can do is help grow those [programs] so that they are applicable to all of our programs. It’s taking that community model and not only teaching our students about it, but also trying to live it as well.”