Newswise — Social justice, inclusion and equity—these threads run through the work that earned assistant professor Christine Nganga of the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership recognition as the outstanding scholar for the College of Education and Human Sciences at South Dakota State University.

“I look at educational leadership through the lens of equity and social justice,” explained Nganga, who has been at SDSU since 2012. She earned her master’s in school administration and then her doctorate in educational leadership from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. “Diversity and inclusion are not just about ethnicity,” said the Kenya native, citing gender, abilities and disabilities, social and economic class and religion in addition to race. “It’s the interplay of all these markers and how to cater to students’ diverse needs in the classroom.”

Nganga has authored or co-authored five book chapters and three journal articles in the last three years. She also mentors minority undergraduate students through a grant from Women and Giving, which supports research through the SDSU Foundation.

Leading program growthNganga has helped increase enrollment in the English as a Second Language endorsement program from four to 16 students. She teaches three of four required courses for the ESL endorsement.

Before coming to the United States to do graduate work, Nganga taught English for eight years in Kenya. In one of the schools, she said, “I had seven textbooks to teach 45 students.” Despite this, she added, “Those ninth-graders were so eager to learn.” Nganga introduces education students to ESL through a linguistic diversity unit in an undergraduate human relations class. Once they learn that ESL endorsement improves their chances of getting a teaching job, they are interested, Nganga explained.

Teaching students to adapt to changeAs she prepares future teachers, Nganga said “one of the challenges is that our world is changing so dramatically.” What freshmen encounter in the classroom when they graduate will be very different compared to what it is now, she pointed out. “You have to teach students to be responsive to the students that they will later instruct in their classrooms wherever they come from,” Nganga said. However, she added, “Our students are not usually trained to think that way.” When it comes to learning about their relationship to a diverse world, “oftentimes, students think that learning about diverse students and developing inclusive communities is learning about ‘those’ people,” Nganga wrote in her education philosophy statement. She recalled her students were surprised that 80 percent of all English as a Second Language learners in American schools were born in the United States. “Some didn’t believe it,” she added, emphasizing the need for students to distinguish knowledge from opinion and examine their own biases and assumptions about people who are different from themselves. Based on their K-12 experiences, students want a script they can follow, such as 10 strategies to teach diverse learners, Nganga explained. “In college, we ask them to think differently.”

Two students from similar backgrounds can have very different responses to her classes. “Some students from rural communities sit at the front of the class and want more,” she said. “Others feel ‘this will never touch me.’”

She approaches this challenge by helping students “understand how interconnected we are,” she said. “Learning is a shift in identity. We cannot shut the door and say it doesn’t affect us; we need to understand how we can work together to help one another.”

“For me, learning is about becoming,” she said. “I challenge my students to not just know and do, but to become.”

About South Dakota State UniversityFounded in 1881, South Dakota State University is the state’s Morrill Act land-grant institution as well as its largest, most comprehensive school of higher education. SDSU confers degrees from eight different colleges representing more than 175 majors, minors and specializations. The institution also offers 32 master’s degree programs, 15 Ph.D. and two professional programs. The work of the university is carried out on a residential campus in Brookings, at sites in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City, and through Cooperative Extension offices and Agricultural Experiment Station research sites across the state.