Leah Juelke

Fargo South High School, North Dakota, USA

Leah  Juelke

Leah’s journey towards becoming a teacher started with her friendship with a family of refugees from Sudan when she was a child. Her friend Sara never invited Leah to her house, because she was ashamed of her family one-bedroom apartment in which seven people lived. It wasn’t until high school that Leah learned Sara’s only meal of the day was her school lunch. Sara’s family struggled to survive in a closed-minded community, but their friendship was a catalyst that fueled Leah’s passion for helping people. In nursing school, she joined the Army National Guard as a medic and volunteered at a school with refugee and immigrant students. The realization that she was making a difference lit a spark, and that is when Leah chose to dedicate her life to teaching.

Leah now works at Fargo South High School in Fargo, North Dakota, in one of the largest English Language high school programs in her state. As a resettlement city, the majority of her students are refugees, who come from camps and war-torn countries with interrupted formal education, trauma and little to no English fluency. Almost all live well below the poverty line, and 40 per cent of the school’s population is considered low-income. Learning disabilities go undiagnosed because of low language ability and the age of the students.

One of Leah’s biggest successes has been the Journey to America project. After meeting Rwandan Genocide survivor Daniel Trust, refugee students were inspired to write about their own difficult journeys from dangerous places to the relative safety of North Dakota. Using their own stories, three of Leah’s students testified at the state capitol against a proposal to ban refugees in North Dakota, and in the end, the legislature did not go forward with the measure. What started out as a way to help students write, work through their traumas and teach the community about diversity resulted in a vehicle for building relationships and empowering students to advocate for themselves.

The project became a published book of refugee and immigrant stories and poems, featuring Fargo South students from many different countries. Her classes have now published six different volumes of the book over the last six years. At the culmination of the project, students perform a public readings of their stories and poems at local universities. In addition, Juelke partnered with Green Card Voices to feature her students in the 2017 book, Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration Stories from Fargo South High. This book featured 31 students from 21 different countries.

In 2018, Leah was honored at the White House as the 2018 North Dakota Teacher of the Year and National Teacher of the Year nominee. She was also named 2019 National NEA Foundation California Casualty and received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence. If awarded the Global Teacher Prize, she will launch a foundation that gives back to hard-working New American students living in North Dakota by awarding scholarships to those who dream of being teachers.