Nigerian couple welcomed to staff of Community Montessori

Nov. 18—NEW ALBANY — A Nigerian couple has found a welcoming community at a New Albany school about a month after arriving in the United States.

Joy Elaigwu and her husband, Johnson, recently left Lagos, Nigeria to work at Community Montessori through an exchange visitor visa program. Joy teaches students ages 9 to 12, and Johnson is works as a substitute in the school.

They arrived Oct. 5 and quickly began their new jobs at the school. The exchange program runs for three years with a possible two-year extension.

Joy and Johnson have been learning about life in the United States, in addition to teaching students about their culture and where they come from.

They have found a "home away from home," Joy said, and in a short period of time, she has been able to make connections with the students, who are called "learners" at the Montessori school.

Barbara Burke Fondren, director of Community Montessori, said it's a "big breath of fresh air" to have Joy and Johnson at the school.

"We're just so joyful that they're here, and our whole community kind of welcomed them by helping to put a home together," she said.

The school community came together to help find the couple an apartment and to provide them with a car, TV, groceries, furniture, a washer and a dryer, allowing them to have a smooth transition to life in Southern Indiana.

The staff of Community Montessori has been committed to the process of bringing Joy and Johnson to Southern Indiana, and about 70 staff members have donated things.

They created a spreadsheet titled "Bring Joy to Your Community" as they worked to put together these donations.

"It's an amazing start," Johnson said. "It's a good apartment. We're thinking we'll come, struggle, save some money...but we just came, and everything was set."

When they arrived, they experienced a "meal train" of Community Montessori staff and parents bringing them food, Joy said.

Joy has been a traditional schoolteacher for nine years, and for the past year, she has been training for a Montessori certification. She describes herself as a "baby Montessorian."

Through her training program in Nigeria, she asked her instructional guide about opportunities to teach in the United States, and she was directed to Community Montessori, where the guide had previously worked, she said.

In June, she reached out to Fondren, and they went through the process of arranging a visa to come to the United States. She went through the Sagamore Institute's J-1 Visa Program.

"I told my friends and family, and they were all excited, because everybody in Africa has an American dream to have a better life," Joy said. "It happened in like a split second — if you had told me in the beginning of this year that I would be in the U.S. now, I would not believe it. It was just like magic."

"There were a lot of emails back and forth," she said. "It sounds so easy right now, but trust me, the process wasn't that easy. It was rigorous."

Johnson said Fondren continued to motivate Joy even as she faced hurdles through the process.

"She was just like a football coach pushing a team to go get it," he said.

Joy teaches math and science, and she has already heard positive feedback from students.

"Last week, we had our parent-teachers conference, and almost all the children who were asked, 'what has been your most exciting thing this year,' and they're all like, 'the math lessons,'" Joy said.

Teaching at the New Albany school has been a rewarding experience for Joy.

"It makes me want to give my all — no holding back," she said. "I just want to give them my best every day and keep making an impact and keep doing better."

Since arriving in Indiana, Joy has had a more difficult time than Johnson adjusting to the colder weather, and she has been dressing in multiple layers to stay warm.

Johnson said it has been "wonderful" to work with children throughout the school of various ages as a substitute. He is new to the educational field, but he worked for many years in the hospitality industry with jobs ranging from the hotel business to his own food distribution business.

"It's been an amazing experience," Johnson said. "It's not much different from what we do in hospitality. We make people feel at home. We speak politely. The learners are like customers — they're always right."

He likes to learn new things, he said, and the teachers and learners "made it easy."

For Johnson, coming to America was a "boyhood dream," he said.

"Everybody wants to go to America," he said. "I like it here, I like the weather...and I like the people. I don't know if it's just Indiana, but they are super nice — unbelievably nice. The children are wonderful. We're thinking we're going to meet some children who are going to be cocky and hard to talk with, but the children are wonderful. They want to always talk to you, they want to meet you."

In addition to serving as a substitute, he teaches students to play soccer, and the students have taught him how to play basketball. At home in Nigeria, he developed a youth soccer team.

"We don't play basketball that much in Africa, and I teach them how to play soccer, because I'm a soccer person," Johnson said.

The learners have expressed interest in learning about their culture, Joy and Johnson said.

"We have so much planned with them to learn about the food, the culture, the songs, the languages," Joy said.

Fondren said Joy and Johnson bring fresh perspectives to the school.

"They see with new eyes, which helps us see with new eyes," she said. "Anytime you do a cultural exchange program, you are opening up to another world of possibilities that you never thought of before."

Multiple staff members have told Fondren that the exchange "is the best thing our school's ever done." It allows the school to "reach out in a more global way," she said.

Joy and Johnson are "super nice people who are easy to like and get along with," she said.

"We hit the jackpot," Fondren said.

Joy said she sees America as a "land of opportunity" as she continues to undergo training as a Montessori teacher.

"So I'll be able to grow my career," she said. "I've learned a lot in this past month about education, and it's an opportunity for me to learn and to grow and to make the impact that I can."