IHSPA Writer of the Year 2018-2019

Pakistan to the USA: the journey to paraeducation

Faith, family, education and ambition have shaped the life of Samina Naz, a paraeducator in the special education department.

Published on the West Side Story on November 10, 2018

Following the death of her parents, Samina Naz was devastated. Her mother passed in 1998 and two years later, her father died of a heart attack. The loss brought her from Pakistan, her home at the time, to the United States, where she became a paraeducator in the special education department.

Naz’s parents were the most important people in her life. She credits her mother, a former teacher at Quetta Balochistan Sacred Heart school in Pakistan and her father, who directed sports at colleges in Quetta, for every success she has in life. They gave her a good education and instilled in her a strong faith in God which she still holds today.

“I’m still empty without them somehow,” Naz said. “Whatever I do, I feel on one hand very happy and the other hand I feel a little bit sad because they cannot see me, what I’m doing now. But if they were here they would be very cheerful. They would be very happy and proud of me.”

While Naz mourned their passing, her brother Nagam was concerned for Naz and wanted her to move forward with her life.

“I was crying a lot and I was very sad. So my brother was in the United States and he told me ‘You should come and study or do something, otherwise if you cry, you will ruin your life,’” Naz said.

After being told about opportunities available in the United States, Naz left Pakistan and headed to Fairfield, Iowa, where Nagam was living at the time. She went to bible school and built friendships there, but there weren’t many job opportunities in the small town, so in 2011, she moved to Iowa City.

Naz was first introduced to West’s special education program while substituting for paraeducators. Though she had teaching experience, students with specialized needs had been taught separately from other students at her schools in Pakistan.

“When I came [to West] it was very interesting that … all the kids, can work together. And I [thought] ‘Oh, that can be cool’ then I start doing subbing,” Naz said. “And then finally, I was taking interest in those kids, I can see that they need more help and love and the other kids can do more on their own; but they really need help… I did an interview and I was assigned this [job] and I say, ‘God, I will take this job because it’s from you.’ It’s just like my inner self is that I have to go to these kids.”

In 2014, Assistant Principal Molly Abraham hired Naz because she believed Naz had the right kind of personality to be a paraeducator.

“She’s a very consistent, stable person for a lot of the kids she works with,” Abraham said. “She’s kind, but she’s not a pushover.”

According to special programs teacher Steve Merkle, when Naz first started working at West, “she picked up on a lot of our projects real quick. She knew how to get involved and she was still good in listening for directions and how to follow plans. But at the same time, she knew when to make her decisions.”

As a paraeducator, Naz assists students in their classes. Depending on the needs of the student this could include taking notes during lectures or even being a students’ second hand in art class. She takes part in the production class where students do a variety of tasks such as making cookies, art or tie-dye.

Before landing her paraeducator position, Naz was already working as an associate at Walmart. For financial reasons, she still works there part time on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“From eight o’clock to four o’clock I am here. So then six o’clock to 10:30 I am at Walmart,” Naz said.

In the summer she picks up more hours at Walmart and does jobs such as sewing or creating jewelry.

Naz feels blessed to have the jobs she has, and she is successful in both. In 2011 and 2012 she was awarded Employee of the Year at Walmart and she is valued by teachers she works with at West. However, she feels the compensation for paraeducators is too low for the work they put in.

Payment is negotiated between the para association and the district. Abraham agrees paraeducators aren’t paid enough, but it is out of the school’s control to increase their wages.

“We’re not out of line with what other districts pay,” Abraham said, “but that just means that we all aren’t paying them enough.”

Eventually, Naz would like to earn enough money so she can move into a better home. She currently lives in a one bedroom apartment where she hardly has enough room to cook for herself. She wants a home that can host her friends from Fairfield who have become like family to her.

“I have Fairfield families [who think] I am like their daughters. I come and I go to their home once a month,” Naz said.

Naz has also built strong connections with her colleagues at West. On May 31, she took the test to become a U.S. citizen. She passed, and to celebrate her new citizenship, the special programs department threw a party for her.

“I was so proud. When I came in the class … Mr. Steve, and all my paras made food, American food, for me that day and these kids are running with the flag,” Naz said. “… I came in and I have a tear in my eye and I was so quiet, but I love them. They love me too.”

Naz has grown close to West staff outside of her department as well. Christian Aanestad met Naz when she was helping students in his art classes and they grew closer during her citizenship application. Aanestad was an aid to her when she needed clarification and assistance when applying, and through that process they built up a level of trust.

“I would consider her family, and we try to treat each other in that way,” Aanestad said. “She’s another sister that I have here in town and so when she needs something, you do those things for people and she treats me the same way. And I think that’s what’s made that relationship work really well.”

While her job, address and friend circles have changed over the years, her devotion to God has been deeply rooted in her since childhood.

“I was born as a Christian but several miracles happened in my life so I was more close to God and I was always praying for God. So when I was getting whatever job I get or wherever I go, I usually first pray and I say ‘God you give me peace’.”

Though raised as a believer, particular events, such as getting the jobs she has, have strengthened her faith. She sees working with her students as a blessing.

Another event Naz considers a miracle took place a year after she moved to Iowa, when she was traveling back to the US after visiting her siblings in Pakistan. She was stopped at a recreation center in a Chicago airport at on her way to Iowa. Her papers were looked at by an officer and Naz wondered if she would be sent back to Pakistan.

In this moment where her future was out of her control, Naz said to God, “If you have it written in your book that I will be in the United States nobody can stop me. And if you’re ready and I have to be back home, you have a plan over there for me.”

After her papers were checked, Naz continued her trip back to Iowa. She believes God was with her in that moment and it was His will to keep her here, so she became a citizen.

She currently doesn’t have blood relatives in town, but Naz connects with her family and her roots by making food, dressing up and dancing with friends and writing poetry.

“Sometimes I feel like remembering my past, my country or my parents or my friends and then I feel like inside, ‘Oh I am so away from them’,” Naz said. “So then I say, ‘Ok maybe I’m away from them, but I can write down something that could go in my books and remind me about them’.”

In the future Naz would like to publish a book of poems. Of course, she would dedicate it to the most influential woman in her life, her mother.


From ages seven to 16 Veronica Kharunda ’19 lived in a refugee camp in Kenya. Today, she is preparing to attend Iowa State University in the fall after her tumultuous journey to receive a quality education.

Published on the West Side Story on December 16, 2018

Education was not a guarantee for Veronica Kharunda ’19. The first school she attended was at a refugee camp in Kenya when she was 10 or 11. Children ranging from five to 20 years old attended before it was even finished being built. When it first opened, kids sat on the floor in the roofless building.

From ages seven to 16 Veronica lived in that camp. She was born in Uganda, but her mom brought Veronica and her five siblings to Kenya because of war and lack of security. At the camp, she was separated from two of her older siblings.

“I just say I’m from Kenya because I know everything about Kenya, I don’t know anything about Uganda. I left there when I was seven years old and the memories I left there were so bad. I don’t want to think of Uganda,” Veronica said.

With help from the UN Refugee Agency, Veronica, her mother and older sister Rachel Kharduna were relocated to Arizona in 2016. Veronica was excited to continue her education in the United States, where she had access to more educational resources.

“I was determined to get an education because I know that that was the only way for me to get out of poverty and make my world better, because I did not want to live in the same situation. I wanted a better life for me and my family,” Veronica said.

Veronica moved to Iowa City in February of 2017. She finished her 2016-2017 school year at City High and then became a West student in the fall of 2017, her junior year of high school.

At West she felt more a part of the community and a sense that people were willing to help her. Counselor Greg Yoder was one of those people. Yoder worked through the Iowa State application process with Veronica. Veronica wrote about her experience in an essay to Iowa State.

“Ever since I got to the camp I knew I had to work hard to be where I wanted to be, so I just thought maybe writing that to Iowa State and telling them that if they give me the opportunity I’m not going to waste it. I’m really gonna work hard,” Veronica said.

“I was just so moved by Veronica’s story and I just felt like she really exemplifies what Iowa State is all about,” said Phil Caffrey, Director of Admissions Operations and Policy at Iowa State.

On November 16 Yoder was contacted by Iowa State. Not only was Veronica accepted into the college, but the Iowa State staff wanted to surprise her in person.

The following Monday, November 19, Jean Morsch’s fifth period Pre-Calculus class was interrupted when faculty members from Iowa State University appeared at the doorway with balloons, a cookie cake and Cy, the Iowa State mascot.

“I’m really sorry about this, because I know how passionate you all are about Pre-Calculus, but we have a very special student that we wish to recognize,” Caffrey said as he entered room 215.  “Is there a Veronica in the classroom?”

Veronica rose from her desk and walked to the front of the room.

“We received your application of admission and we were very impressed by you; we were very inspired and motivated by your story. You show dedication, passion, resilience and those are the type of qualities that we look for for students that embody who we are at Iowa State, so we are going are going to offer [you] admission for the fall of 2019,” Jesus Lizarraga from Iowa State said.

Veronica stood in front of her clapping peers, absorbing the shock of the moment. It was her dream school, with its engineering program and in-state location. A decade earlier, this achievement would have seemed unimaginable to her.

The cluster of Iowa State staff then led Veronica to another room near Morsch’s classroom.

“I was explaining to Veronica what the next steps would be … She would be receiving her official admissions letter in the mail very shortly, and I wanted to make her aware of a couple of scholarships that I thought she was the ideal candidate for that she should apply for,” Caffrey said. “During the course of that conversation, Veronica broke down. It was a really emotional time for everybody.”

“It was [emotional] because where I’m from, education is not your right,” Veronica said. “Only the rich people get to go to school and all that, so I didn’t start school until I was like 11 years or 10 years old … thinking of all the things that I’ve gone through to get to college is, sometimes I just think back and think, I don’t know, I’m lucky or something. Not everyone gets that opportunity, especially where I’m from, it’s a blessing.”

After class, Veronica told her sister Rachel, a student at Kirkwood Community College, not to go anywhere. When she got home, Veronica didn’t even use her keys; she knocked on the door and waited for Rachel to open it and find her standing there with balloons.

“She kept praying to get into this school so the first thing I was like, ‘Oh my God. Her dream came true. Her dream just came true,’” Rachel said. “She was so excited, actually I’ve never seen her excited …  the way I saw her face that day.”

Veronica is hoping to be one of 100 Iowa students that will receive the Hixson Opportunity Award to pay for her schooling. She will find out in January if she received that award.

Along with her perseverance, Veronica’s volunteer work also stood out to Iowa State. She has worked nearly 100 hours at Crowded Closet, where she enjoys interacting with customers. One day she hopes to give back to the kids in Kenya as well.

“Once I’m done with education and get a good job I just want to go back and help them with their tuition fees because Kenya has some really good schools but it’s really expensive,” Veronica said.

Rachel hopes that her sister can be an inspiration to kids in the same situation she and Veronica were in a few years ago. She also reminds Veronica to never forget how far she has come.

“Remember where you come from, that you didn’t have even a chance to sit in a class and not worry about food, safety, where you’re gonna sleep. It’s a blessing, it’s blessing,” Rachel said. “So I tell her everyday: Do not forget. Do not forget. We’ve come a long way… and you need to keep pushing.”

Seeking help while facing stigmas

Many students at West seek to improve their mental health with professionals, yet there are still plenty of misconceptions surrounding the topic. Several students share how therapy has influenced them and the role that it plays in their life.

Published on the West Side Story on February 27, 2019

Draped across a couch, a person heaves the woes of their childhood and innermost thoughts, as a man in a tweed jacket with glasses takes notes. This is how a stereotypical therapy session is portrayed in New Yorker cartoons or on television, but such generalizations are a burden on people who benefit from this treatment.

While many teenagers across the country attend therapy, their reasons for seeking help and the role therapy plays in their lives is sometimes misunderstood by their peers. This can cause students who attend therapy to be confronted with stigmas or, in some cases, just not discuss therapy openly due to fear of judgement.

“Lots of people tend to have the stigma that therapy is for people that are crazy or they have issues, but when I started going I realized even if you don’t have that many issues, if you talk to someone about just tiny things it can help your life,” said Katherine Yacopucci ’20, who began therapy following her move to Iowa in sixth grade.

Doctor Patricia Espe-Pfeifer, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, explained that people may attend therapy to help deal with mood, adjusting to life changes, situations with family or school or to cope with other stressors. A misconception she has encountered is the notion that only people with severe issues need a therapist.

“Most often the teenagers that I work with, they’re having to deal with issues that really were out of their control,” said Espe-Pfeifer.

This was the case for Elise Seery ’21, who attended therapy in sixth and seventh grade to treat her extreme phobia regarding sleep. At the time, Seery kept her therapy experience private because she was embarrassed she couldn’t sleep alone in her room and she didn’t have friends in therapy she could relate the experience to.

“That was really hard for me when I was younger. But now, I have some distance from what I went through that I feel like I can talk about it more,” Seery said.

One misconception Seery has noticed in her peer’s understanding of therapy is that only people with certain issues need to go to therapy.

“What is publicized is people who have depression and those kind of issues. People who have things like I do, like anxiety and phobias and that kind of stuff, people don’t believe them. And they don’t think that it’s important, necessarily, or as important,” Seery said. “I still have friends who have seen me at my worst and deal with that who don’t believe it and who just think I’m being dramatic.”

Taylore Kuenster ’19 has been in therapy since seventh grade and her acceptance of it has drastically since starting therapy. She was reluctant to start therapy because she felt the therapist would take the side of her parents over hers and held a grudge against her first therapist because of it. She also avoided talking about it due to fear of judgement. She has become open about her experience over time, but that has led her to face overgeneralizations.

Sometimes when she mentions she is in therapy people assume she is depressed, has anxiety or self harms, which bothers her because mentioning those issues can be triggering to people who are affected by them.

Kuenster feels so close to her current therapist that she looks forward to having conversations with her.

“It’s mostly that I’m just ranting her like I do with any of my other friends, but it’s just ranting to an adult rather than ranting to a person my age,” Kuenster said. “So it definitely plays a big role in my life because I look forward to seeing her and honestly, just tell her all the gossip.”

In a more serious way, she looks to her therapist as a key provider of advice and values getting her input on her situations.

“They’re playing another support system and another voice in your life and it’s just nice to get another opinion other than people that you’re close,” Kuenster said.

It’s been such an influential part of her life that the college bound student plans to study family services and psychology at University of Northern Iowa. She’s always wanted to help people and discovered a year ago that therapy was the way she wanted to do so.

“I want to get a job in mental health therapy and work on that level … since I’ve gone to therapy all my life, I’ve been very influenced and that’s my passion,” Kuenster said.

Connor Hayes ’20 is fairly private about therapy in conversations, but his close friends are supportive that he has started going in the past few months.

“I never really liked therapy, I just sort of thought I could handle it myself, but then going into it I just kind of got used to it and it helped me a lot,” said Hayes.

After struggling with depression for three years he decided he needed help. Since starting, he says he is happier and can talk about his problems in a more effective way.

That same notion is echoed by Yacoppuci.

“[Professional therapists] make you feel heard. And it’s really nice to talk to someone that doesn’t necessarily understand what you’re going through, but they have ways to help you through it,” Yacoppuci said.

The general consensus from the students is that it’s a healthy way to get out feelings and work through problems. There is a vast range of reasons why someone may seek therapy; clumping attendees together and making overgeneralizations can perpetuate stereotypes and make talking about therapy more difficult.

“It’s not something that should be considered scary, it’s not a sign of weakness that you go to therapy,” Seery said. “It’s a completely normal thing that people do just to stay healthy.”

From a kid with a toy to a champion with a platform

With a Rubik’s cube and some practice, Brody Lassner has become a competitive Rubik’s cuber with a Youtube channel.

Published on the West Side Story on September 20, 2018

He was given a 3×3 Rubik’s cube eight years ago. With a few twists it could go from a colorful mess to an organized block of color. He became fascinated with turning the scrambled squares back into their perfect form.

“I was interested then, but it was really brief and I just sort of played with it like everyone does, get stumped and then move on,” said Brody Lassner ’20. “And then a few years later, I came back to it and looked up a tutorial online and struggled with that for a few weeks until I eventually figured it out.”

He was around 8 years old when he could completely solving the cube. Lassner learned over several weeks from studying videos and memorizing concepts to help him solve it. One of the most helpful videos was by Youtuber Dan Brown. After a series of trial and error, Lassner could solve the cube in about a minute a half.

In seventh grade there was another student at Northwest Junior High, Nathan Deyak ’21, who could solve the cube faster than Lassner. Lassner made it his mission to surpass his classmate’s 35 second record.

“I wanted to be the fastest person at Northwest … and so I achieved that [and] that gave me the motivation to really try. Then I surpassed him in about a month and then from there, you just want to go as hard as you can.”

That competition led him to speed up the solving process and become as fast as he is now.

“I remember the the first week or two after I started learning to get fast were really, really frustrating because I made mistakes every single time I tried,” said Lassner. “But after I got past that, it was just smooth sailing and I’d finally gotten the hang of it. And then I made a lot of progress really quickly.”

After beating his classmate, the word spread about his talent around Northwest Junior High.

“Most days, somebody would come to me and bring me a scrambled cube they brought from home, I’d solve it for them,” said Lassner.

Though he was able to amaze his junior high peers with his quick solving skills, it’s the online reactions that have stayed constant and amazed Lassner.

He started his Youtube channel, BrodytheCuberin April of 2015, around the same time he started competing in cubing competitions.

“Of course a lot of kids go through a phase where they want to make videos, they want to be famous, and I went through the same phase of just like pouring out videos without much thought. But then about a little over a year ago, I started really caring about what I was making and trying to make it quality,” said Lassner.

Lassner started focussing on helping others solve cubes faster. His first hit video was titled “10 INCREDIBLE Techniques To Help You Get Faster At 3×3”, which was posted last year.

“I rode that success for a few months and then it mostly died down about six months later,” he said.

Lassner then found a Youtube channel about marketing videos and he had another wave of success following the implementation of the skills he’d learned.

He has been to eighteen cubing competitions, including the US national cubing competition where he placed 13th in the one handed solving contest. At West, Lassner created a speed cubing club with Anuj Jani ’22.

Today he has more than thirteen thousand subscribers and his online support has been surreal.

“In real life people are like ‘that’s interesting’ and then move on, but like online a lot of crazy stuff has happened. People will find my Facebook account and then they’ll friend me and be like, ‘Are you the real Brody Lassner?’” said Lassner. “People will message me and say ‘Wow you helped me so much’ and like it’s unreal. It’s something I’ll never get used to and I don’t want to get used to it.”

Joy at West

Junior Zheyi Li shares the differences in the Chinese and American education system that she’s noticed during her visit at West.

Published on the West Side Story on October 28, 2018

Zheyi Li ’20 is walking through the same halls, going to the same classes and talking to the same teachers as many West students. While the day to day life in the Iowa City Community School District has become mundane for most of her peers, this is a new experience for Li, one that will end when she returns to China in November.

Li, or Joy, as she is known by her classmates here, normally attends Chengdu Experimental Foreign Languages School, a boarding school in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. Li arrived in Iowa on Oct. 10. Her mother is currently studying at the University of Iowa and she wanted Li to come along so she could observe different kinds of schooling.

“Here you have clubs, you have social activity, you can get a part-time job and you talk to different people and you walk to different classrooms,” said Li. “In China when you study, you buy a lot of books [and] you do a lot of homework. The teacher … prepares everything for you. You just have to sit and do the problem, solve the problem and try to get a better score. It’s like being a robot.

At her boarding school, Li has five classes in the morning, four in the afternoon and four in the evening.

Li has enjoyed the smaller classroom setting in Iowa. In her classes in China there are at least 50 students in a room, so students cannot always get questions answered about confusing topics and they do not build as many personal connections with their teachers.

At West, Li has gotten to know Gary Neuzil, her psychology and government teacher.

“I think it’s amazing when you have a student of this caliber who can come in and accept our culture and also accept my unique teaching styles,” Neuzil said.

She has been surprised by the responsibilities students have, such as holding a job or driving because in China the driving age is 18. One day Li was walking home and one of her classmates drove by and greeted her. She was surprised to see them behind the wheel.

Li noticed that students here have more time to explore their interests.

“I think the students in America are much more mature than us. We know only how to study, but we don’t know anything else. I’m not going to say everyone, but most students,” Li said. “I don’t know anything about my hobbies.”

With the free time she has gotten on her visit, Li was able to try ice skating at the Coral Ridge Mall. She had seen ice skating in the Olympics and thought it looked beautiful.

“In China I haven’t got the time even to try it,” said Li. “I stay in school from Sunday evening to Saturday evening, my weekend is only one day, I have to do my homework and there’s not much spare time for me; but now I get to enjoy it.”

There are a few clubs at her school, and Li is involved with the Model UN. However, Chinese students don’t have much time to participate in extracurriculars, and 12th graders can’t be in clubs because Gāo Kǎo is right around the corner.

Gāo Kǎo is a high stakes test that determines what kind of college high school graduates will attend.

“The final test you can only take once,” said Li. “So I think that’s sometimes unfair because what if you get sick?”

The pressure is a lot for students to handle. Li said, “It’s something to be ashamed of,” if students don’t perform well on the test.

Li noted that in the United States the scores on tests aren’t the only factors colleges value; athletics, musical ability and involvement in extracurriculars are also taken into account, while in China, the test score is the most valued and all of high school is spent preparing for it.

“If I have an apple and a pear in my hands and my apple got picked away I still have a pear. But China says I’ve only got my apple. Well, if somebody took it away then I would think, ‘Oh my God, my whole life’s ruined,’” Li said.

When she leaves on Nov. 8, Li is going to miss the opportunity to express individualism that is present at West. Student here have few limits on their clothes and the way they present themselves. At Li’s school there is less opportunity for her to express herself, and physical aspects like hairstyles have rules.

“Everyone is different. Everyone has their own special thing. But in China everyone is like the same,” Li said.

While being in Iowa has shown Li what American public schools are like, her presence in class has also taught her peers about the Chinese culture.

“She truly brings a boost of energy, but also she’s been able to contribute contents of her own culture, her own society and particularly talking about what student life is [like] in China,” Neuzil said.