Minori Nagatomo

Growing up in Asia and having an opportunity to travel, I was not sheltered from poverty.  But it was during the high school service trip to Vietnam I was truly shattered by children living in poverty and felt compelled to pursue a career in response to what I saw.  In my naïveté, I decided I was going to be a teacher with a dream to “help poor children go to school.”

Photo by Erin Manfredi

What was your first degree and where did you study?

I double majored in K-12 education and French at Washington University in St. Louis.  There, I volunteered and did my student teaching at public schools in both poor and wealthy neighborhoods.  It was a bittersweet experience.  There was a metal detector for guns and knives at the school in the poor neighborhood, and the wealthier school looked lovely.  Beneath the surface, though, I found out students’ secrets, as teachers do.  At both schools, there were stories of brokenness and resilience, as well as hopes and dreams.  The experience reaffirmed my belief that every young person, rich or poor, needs a good teacher who doesn’t only provide knowledge but helps build up a whole person.

Why did you choose to study at OUDE?

A few years after I finished my undergraduate studies and became a teacher, I had an opportunity to go to Rwanda and Uganda to help with short-term projects.  There were so many children who would love to go to school but couldn’t, and I met teachers who love their students but weren’t equipped to teach a class.  My dream to educate underprivileged children resurfaced, and I knew I needed further education.  I knew I wanted to study with the best, and the MSc in Comparative and International Education was perfect with an emphasis on education as a humanitarian response.  One problem: I didn’t have the money to go!  But I applied in faith anyway, and it was a miracle to me that World Bank provided a full scholarship.  Because I had to receive both need-based and merit-based scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies to be where I am today, I am keenly aware of the power of education and the power of individuals, schools and organizations choosing to invest in a young person’s life.

What is your favorite memory from your time at OUDE?

Because Oxford is a place where people who are passionate about their fields gather, there is such a strong sense of freedom to, well, be as nerdy as you like!  I loved that we could enjoy exciting intellectual discussions anywhere, anytime.  I was blessed to have friends in many different fields as well, so I learned just as much outside of the classroom.

Who in your professional life has inspired you?

Jackie Banasing has to be one of the biggest inspirations in my professional life.  She has devoted over twenty years of her career to providing quality education to the poorest children in the Philippines, and now I have the honor of sharing the title of national director of education with her at International Care Ministries (www.caremin.com).  Because of her efforts and persistence, our kindergarten program began with two schools, with about sixty children total.  Now we educate over 2000 children each year at our 85 kindergartens around the nation, and support about 4000 elementary school students through our scholarship program to cover the hidden costs of education. When I first joined her in this adventure, I found the language and cultural barriers and health issues extremely challenging, and I was completely overwhelmed by the poverty that surrounded.  When I felt like I couldn’t stay, Jackie has proven to be a true friend in showing me how to walk with the ultra poor in the Philippines.

Looking back at your professional achievements, what are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the things that I have been able to accomplish with others – it is amazing how impact multiplies when people come together!  One example is the partnership between ICM and the Filipino Department of Education.  At the beginning, many local Department of Education officials did not understand what we were doing.  I imagine they could not believe that we were providing completely free education, school supplies, nutrition-fortified lunch as well as health, values and livelihood education for parents with no ulterior motives other than to provide a quality education to below-subsistence poor children who may not otherwise go to school.  Many of them threatened to fine or shut down the schools.  When I joined ICM, I spent over a year pursuing open dialogue and relationship with DepEd, and people began to see just how many children’s lives were being transformed through our program.  Some were moved to tears.  Now we have a legal partnership with DepEd in which we pursue the same goal of educating the Filipino ultra poor together.

My calling is to advocate for children as an educator and to help provide quality education for children who don’t have access.  I take immense pride in bringing about new policies and systems to continually improve the quality of education and the program as a whole, but my efforts would not be nearly as effective without the efforts of others.  Because of generous donors who believe in the same cause, we can provide for the material needs of the kindergartens and scholarships.  Because of colleagues who are experts in health, livelihood and values, students’ parents are living and raising their children differently.  Because of local staff who often come from similar backgrounds as program participants, we can reach out in a way that is relevant to the community.  Both Filipinos and foreigners are shocked by what I do and how I live, particularly that I have been to places where not even Filipinos dare to go, but this is possible, because courage rubs off on me from colleagues with whom I can trust my own life.  We now have kindergartens in areas known for armed conflict and a massacre but desperate for educational provision.  Our kindergartens are bringing hope to many families!

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education?

I would do two things.  I would share that there are many ways to pursue a career in education beyond teaching in a classroom setting.  Many NGO’s need educators, someone has to write great textbooks, many others are needed to do research in education.  Having said that, I would also say that experience in classroom teaching at the beginning of one’s career in education would be priceless.  If our goal is to provide great education to people who need it, we must walk in solidarity with students, parents, classroom teachers and the community we aim to love and serve.