Two UConn students have been chosen as the 2022 Alma Exley Scholars. They are Saraya Lewis, a junior majoring in secondary English education, and Tamashi Hettiarachchi, who is pursuing a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction. She majored in chemistry education as an undergraduate at UConn.
The program was able to offer two scholarships this year because of the growth of the endowment at the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain. The growth was achieved thanks to substantial contributions as well as solid investment gains.
Ms. Lewis, a graduate of Stratford (CT) High School, is active in UConn’s Leadership in Diversity (LID), a student-led support group which promotes equity, justice, and diversity in education and in the community. She has studied the impact of the lack of diversity among teachers in Connecticut and how this has affected the way students of color train to become teachers.
“During this semester, especially in my Multicultural Education, Equity and Social Justice class, there was an emphasis on the lack of educators of color,” she said. “We learned that the biases of administrators and teachers toward young children of color severely impact the number of individuals of color who enter the field of education.
“These discussions were extremely relatable as I had only two Black teachers during my academic career before college. The conversations would always tie back into how we as educators can create safe spaces for our students of color in a society that is not always welcoming.”
As part of her LID activities, she participated in campus workshops on the school-to-prison pipeline and critical race theory. Sponsoring these sessions were the Connecticut Education Association, the UConn’s Neag School of Education, and UConn Community Outreach.
Ms. Lewis has extensive experience as a tutor for elementary and secondary students, and she is a team captain in Huskython, which raises funds for children at Connecticut Children’s hospital.
As a member of the UConn Future Educators club, she participated (pre-Covid) in STEM and literacy events at high schools in Eastern Connecticut. “These events gave us experience in school environments prior to applying to Neag,” she said. “For literacy night, we read to elementary-aged students in different classrooms. For STEM night, I led math activities with secondary students.”
The Neag faculty chose her for the 2021 Neag Hearst Scholarship in recognition of her outstanding achievements in the teacher-preparation program.
Ms. Hettiarachchi, a graduate of Glastonbury (CT) High School, has been active in efforts to improve science teaching and to bring issues of social justice into the science curriculum. She is collaborating with teachers in Connecticut and New York to identify justice-centered science teaching practices as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
She has lent her talents to the Mentor Teacher Collaborative, which is increasing access to high-quality science teaching in Connecticut. She also hosts a podcast called NGSNavigators, which offers high-quality professional development to educators.
She collaborated with UConn faculty in the development of a curriculum based on the complex biological systems in a nest of two million army ants. In connection with this project, she was the lead author of a peer-reviewed article published in the National Science Teaching Association’s Science Scope journal for middle-school teachers. In a related effort, she co-designed and co-led a professional-development program for middle-school science teachers.
As president of Leadership in Diversity, she has strengthened the organization’s mission of supporting and encouraging future teachers of color. She received the Outstanding Senior Women Academic Achievement Award in May 2021 in recognition of high achievement in research and service at UConn.
These outstanding students join a remarkable network of Alma Exley Scholars honored over the past 26 years. Our honorees are making a difference as outstanding teachers and distinguished educational leaders at the local, state, and national levels.