As an interdisciplinary researcher, my work is influenced by several disciplines but is primarily grounded in cultural and linguistic anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. My personal experiences as a Muslim Indian immigrant and an English learner have prepared me for my current work in the areas of bilingual education, identity politics, and international education.
As a child growing up in poverty both in Hyderabad and Chicago and facing racism at an early age, I have become sensitive to the needs of students who often feel marginalized by the educational system. These experiences have also resulted in my interest in issues of access and equity, and educational policy and practice.
I come from a large Muslim family from Masab Tank, Hyderabad and grew up in the AC Guard Homes (near the Karachi Bakery) with my parents, siblings, grandfather, aunts and uncles, cousins and a pet goat. In the early 1970s, my father and uncles ended up immigrating to Iran and worked in Tehran to send money back home since India was in an economic recession. It was not until talk of overthrowing the Shah started circulating that the men folk came back and decided their next destination was the United States as American companies came to Hyderabad recruiting a cadre of engineers and doctors to fill needs back home. Even though my father came from a poor family of 18 who had just sold their mango farm in Mallamphet, my father ended up with an engineering degree from Osmani University.
We immigrated to Chicago when I was 5 but I did not know the English language and American culture. I was wrongly placed in a Special Education classroom by the third grade and faced racism and segregation on a daily basis. My family did not fit the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans; rather, we grew up in public housing in the inner-ring suburbs since my father only had a working visa and my mother toiled away in a factory at night while I cared for my younger siblings. The expectation set for me was that I would attend the local community college and get married by age eighteen and start a family.
However, I still remember my high school English teacher, Mrs. Nelson, pulling me aside and stating that I needed to study for the ACT so I can go to a place called the University of Chicago, which I never had heard of before. It was with that prodding that led my father, who did see the value of an education for women, to send me off to Northwestern University on a full scholarship. My family of six was earning around $30,000 a year and I ended paying only $5000 for 4 years of a wonderful education where I had amazing professors and gained a wealth of knowledge.
But college was a culture shock as I tried to fit into a privileged world of sex, drugs and rock and roll—a world so foreign to my immigrant self. My Irish-American husband and I are both from families where college education is not the norm and therefore our life stories really address the importance of teachers reaching out to students on the margins and providing the resources and guidance needed to get to college and also to survive the cultural transitions once there.
As a child of Indian immigrants, I started off in the pre-med field at Northwestern University and ended up with an English degree and a minor in Biology. Upon graduation in 1993, I was recruited by Teach for America and taught for 4 years as a middle school Spanish bilingual teacher in Houston. Along the way, I married another TFA candidate (Bartholomew St. John) and we now have 3 children together: Najda, Salma and Yusef.
My husband and I ended up moving to New York City where I pursued a doctorate in education from Teachers College while working in the Newark Public Schools as a literacy specialist. My husband continued teaching middle school in Washington Heights. At that time, I had enough energy to teach during the day, take classes in the evenings, and stay in the library until the midnight hour. Since New York City was so expensive, I ended up having many interesting part time jobs along the way such as teaching Russian doctors English on the weekends and testing young children for the exclusive private schools on the Upper East Side. We both miss the hustle and bustle of a large city but last summer I ended up teaching at CUNY as an adjunct and stayed in Hell’s Kitchen with my three children.
My 2002 dissertation was an ethnographic study of a Spanish-English dual language program on the Upper West Side that focuses on race, language and culture dynamics. The 500-page plus dissertation ended up as an award-winning book (Language, Space and Power) and I won the first place dissertation award from NABE (National Association of Bilingual Education) in 2004. See my Publications page if you want to learn more about the book.
My second book, which is under review, focuses on Black-Hispanic race relations in a majority minority school district. In our study, the racial and cultural world within the selected suburban school district embodies an in-between, liminal racial space: it brings together a nearly 70 percent White middle-class female teaching staff, a predominantly Black administration and school board, an aging Italian political power base and an increasing Hispanic student population that is nearing a third of the student body. As the population of Black students slowly continues to decline within this historically Black school district and the population of Hispanic students slowly continues to increase, public schools that once were predominantly segregated Black schools are slowly becoming “integrated” as more and more Hispanic families are moving into middle-to-low income neighborhoods that once were all-Black. The integration of Hispanic students into Black neighborhoods within urban districts has been documented; however, our study focuses on the suburbs—a new racial frontier. Recent sociopolitical changes in the racial geography of the Chicagoland area has led to the outward migration of racial minority groups, such as Mexican Americans, from urban core areas and into the “inner-ring” suburbs on the fringes of Chicago where our research study is set—an in-between geographic space between the inner city and outer-ring suburbs.
Currently, I am working on completing three new books: a book on morphological awareness and how to teach it in elementary classrooms; a children’s book titled The Story of Morphemes; and my first collection of poems from Red Mountain Press titled Muslim Melancholia. Please see my Poetry page.
In the future, I would like to work on a biography of the Mexican American landscape artist, Porfirio Salinas. A more creative work is an epistolary play based on a fictitious letter exchange between Queen Elizabeth and Akbar the Great.