The daughter of a Slovakian immigrant who fought to earn a degree in computer science and a job at IBM, Shelley Kunasek grew up believing that education changes lives. She felt the empowerment of education firsthand during her college chemistry classes. “I had identified myself as ‘bad’ at science in high school, so I enrolled in the pre-med chemistry series with gritted teeth.” The guidance of her chemistry professor changed her life. “My fear and self-doubt as a scientist was replaced with confidence and enthusiasm.”
Inspired by this experience, Shelley became a U.S. Peace Corps Science Education Volunteer in Africa’s Burkina Faso, where she taught middle-school science for eighteen months. She initially struggled to cope with classes of 100 students speaking a mixture of Samo and French. Shelley’s breakthrough came when she helped her toughest troublemaker lead the class in a demo and exposed his innate critical reasoning skills. “He soon became a top student of 8th grade science, resolved to leave the village and finish high school.” Seeing his and other students’ enthusiasm motivated Shelley to create a week-long Girls’ Summer Camp, where exceptional female middle school graduates participated in enriching activities and met prominent female bankers, doctors and politicians. “I left the camp rejoicing at success and hungry for another opportunity for outreach.”
Shelley graduated with a BS in chemistry from Pomona College. Before embarking on her MA in teaching, she earned her doctorate at the University of Washington and taught chemistry for two years in Des Moines, Washington’s Highline Community College where many of her diverse students were immigrants or first-generation college students. “In every teaching experience since my Peace Corps work, I have been further humbled and further rewarded.”
Shelley hopes to inspire her students’ curiosity and interest, and teach them skills to be successful in college.