Rising Star

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Dajuan Rudolph shines. With a brilliant smile and poise despite wielding an apparently heavy backpack, she warmly shakes my hand as we meet in person for the first time on the steps of the Taylor Education Building.

I’m there to take her photo, catching up with her in a rare free moment between classes. Smartly dressed, she looks ready to step in front of a classroom. A year from now, the 21-year-old’s plan is to do exactly that as an elementary teacher, either in a kindergarten class or, she’s now starting to think, third grade. When she speaks, she sounds ready. Eager. Motivated.

No matter which grade level she teaches, she wants to reach children for whom she can be a positive role model and help change the trajectory of their lives the way a pair of teachers changed hers.

“I hope they know that they are my heroes and my angels here on earth,” Rudolph says. “It’s teachers like them I aspire to be like – teachers who have passion for teaching and educating, who really care about not only their students’ education but their health and their future. I am working to adopt those characteristics by learning all I can about education and how I can be effective in the classroom. I go to class every day and I engage myself. Maybe one day I can change a student’s life like they changed mine.”

Growing up in neighborhoods riddled with poverty and violence, as the middle child of five siblings, Rudolph knows what it means to struggle for basic needs, including safety. She remembered hearing gunshots outside and going without electricity and water at times, waking up and going home to a dark house.

Going without money may make some people value it more, but it gave Rudolph a different perspective.

“I thank God for my struggles because they made me wise, strong, independent, and most of all, ambitious for change,” Rudolph said. “I didn’t grow up with much, didn’t have the newest clothes, shoes or latest technology. My mother worked hard … and we still survived.”

Rudolph’s mother put all her energy toward making ends meet, so Rudolph and her siblings were on their own when it came to homework and keeping up with their grades.
School became an escape for Rudolph, and she worked hard – so much that she was able to skip second grade and go straight from first to third. She continued to focus on excelling in school, but college wasn’t really on her radar. No one in her immediate family had gone beyond high school, and she didn’t think it would be possible for her to afford tuition.

Two teachers – a math teacher, Latisha Sutton, and an English teacher, Jason Cook, whom the students called “Coach” – especially encouraged Rudolph to pursue a college education.

“They saw in me things that I couldn’t see in myself,” Rudolph said. “I thank God for these two teachers because if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
They encouraged her to apply to a couple of universities, including UK. She was accepted into more than one, but ultimately chose UK and received the four-year William C. Parker scholarship. Rudolph is now in her fifth year, with plans to graduate in May, but as she prepared to wind up her fourth year, she was anxious about how to fund her fifth and last year of undergraduate study.

“Every year I struggle financially,” Rudolph said frankly. “Being in college, having a job and being involved on campus is hard to maintain. Money is always a problem with students, especially when you come from a low-income family.”

This year, she learned she would receive the UK College of Education’s William R. Black Fund for Educators. Getting the acceptance letter was an important moment in her life.
“I cried that day, tears of happiness,” she said. “If I was only awarded $100 I would have been just as happy. Knowing that someone who has never met me believed in me – that is an amazing feeling; it’s motivation for me. That’s what I want to do for others.”

When Rudolph talks about her future students, there is a faraway look in her eyes, and I wonder if she is thinking about her own days as a little girl who loved school so much because that’s where she felt the safest and happiest.

“As a teacher I look forward to changing children’s educational lives. I want to be able to encourage them to learn new things. I look forward to meeting those students who grew up in the same type of living environment as me and being able to change their views about learning,” she says. “I know how challenging it can be to grow up in a home that doesn’t highlight the importance of a good education,” she says. “Simply by being a teacher I believe I can make a difference in the lives of others. That’s mainly why I chose this career. I know from experience that pursuing a higher education is beneficial. I want to encourage children to do the same. I want to teach them that education is important in being successful.”

And while being the first in her family to go to college has been a challenge, it has also presented her with an opportunity to inspire others in her family to think big. “Staying in college, working hard for what I want and need … can change someone’s life. My nieces and nephews motivate me to continue to follow my dreams because I want them to see me and be inspired,” Rudolph said. “I want to be able to support and motivate my students to do all they can to be successful. No matter our gender, backgrounds, ethnicity or financial situation, we can be successful if we work hard, believe and go after our dreams.” «