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Passing on an Appreciation of Life to His Students

Florida teacher, four others, to be honored for teaching that makes a difference

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June 13, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold
Rafael Arechabaleta

Rafael Arechabaleta

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A Florida teacher who fled Cuba in 1994 for the United States in a hand-built raft made from a Caterpillar tractor inner tube and pieces of fabric is one of five high school teachers who will be honored as a “teacher who has made a difference” at Northwestern University’s Honors Day (June 14) and Commencement (June 15).

Rafael Arechabaleta -- known as Mr. A. to his students at the Fort Lauderdale school where he teaches -- “inspired me to become an engineer and to push myself in life,” says soon-to-graduate McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Michael Dornbusch. Dornbusch and four graduating Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences seniors nominated Arechabaleta for Northwestern’s Distinguished Secondary Teacher Awards. 

Arechabaleta and 2012 distinguished secondary teaching award winners Greg Devine, John F. Belcaster, Amanda Bright and Christine Jawork were selected from a pool of more than 80 teachers nominated by their former students. Each of the teachers and each of their schools will receive $2,500 as part of the award. 

“Rafael Arechabaleta is the second University School of Nova Southeastern University teacher to win the distinguished teaching award in the two years that we have given it,” says Eugene Lowe, assistant to Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and chair of the award’s selection committee. “What’s also remarkable is that in both cases the winning teachers were nominated not by a single student but by a team.”

The tales of Arechabaleta’s escape from Cuba and his appreciation of the freedoms the U.S. affords still resonate for Dornbusch, Jonathan Schwartz, Mitchell Drew, Kelly Flowers and Matthew Bartnovsky who nominated Arechabaleta for the award. “I still hear his heavy Cuban accent when I’m reading physics literature,” Bartnovsky says.

“To win this award coming from my students is truly an honor,” says the physics teacher who calls his teaching philosophy a “meld” of Cuban-, Russian- and American-style education. “I treat my students as I would college students so they can make the transition from high school to college and from structure to independent learning.” 

As a youngster in Cuba, he attended a “tuition-free” government-operated boarding school where students studied in the mornings and raised and harvested oranges and pineapple in the afternoons. “We worked hard,” he said, adding that he had some wonderful teachers. “For 12 years, I only saw my parents on weekends. By American standards, this is criminal.”

On passing an entrance exam, Arechabaleta at age 15 was sent to study in the Soviet Union, and given a $10 a month stipend. “Gorbachev was starting Perestroika, and it was the beginning of the end of Communism,” he recalls. To make ends meet, he and other Cuban students traveled to Eastern bloc nations and sold coveted Soviet electronics, bicycles and other goods. 

“We all hoped to wind up in the United States, the land of opportunity,” Arechabaleta says, but the Cuban government had different plans for them. They originally were slated to return to Cuba as professors or researchers. But when officials realized that they were returning home critical of the Cuban government and with hopes of defecting, “they punished us by giving us very hard jobs,” Arechabaleta says.

In Havana, he worked at a bicycle factory and more happily “as a doorman at a shopping mall where I could earn tips and make $50 a month.” As a physicist, he would have earned about $30 a month less, he says. 

In 1994, at age 24, Arechabaleta, his sister and a handful of neighbors fled Cuba in their homemade boat with nothing more than a compass to guide them. After three days, they were picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard, and then spent a year at a refugee camp in Guantanamo Bay. Arechabaleta, who already spoke Russian, used the year to study English.

In Miami, he worked in a warehouse and a factory. On gaining permanent resident status in Florida, he enrolled at Florida International University, where he earned a graduate degree in experimental physics. His first graduate degree, earned in the Soviet Union, was in theoretical physics.

These days, Arechabaleta -- who prefers teaching to research -- is working on a doctoral thesis in education. He calls teaching “a beautiful path,” and says the “beautiful students and colleagues” at the school at which he has worked for 12 years “fulfill the emptiness of not being in my native country or with my family.” 

“I came to this country as a young adult, but my years here have been very short compared to the life I had before that required much sacrifice,” he says. “Now every day something beautiful happens.” It is this appreciation of life and its gifts that he seeks to pass on to his students.

The four other 2012 Northwestern’s Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award winners taking part in Honors Day and Commencement are:

Greg Devine, an Advanced Placement (AP) physics teacher at Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., who also serves as an advisor to the Engineering and Design Club and director of the school’s wind and brass ensembles. He was nominated by McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Luke Francis Hemenetz. “Greg Devine sparks a passion for learning in his students and his students respond in kind,” says Delbarton School Headmaster Brother Paul Diveny of the physics teacher. “With a true passion for teaching and self-renewal, Greg is a life-long learner himself, and this is what he models to his students.”

John F. Belcaster, a Northwestern University alumnus who, prior to teaching, worked alongside now President Barack Obama at the Chicago law firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland, teaches honors American and world history at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. He previously taught AP economics and history at Chicago’s Northside College Preparatory High School, where he taught Weinberg senior Patricia Radkowski, who nominated him for the award.  She describes Belcaster as “passionate about his position and his students and incredibly educated.” Tim Devine, principal of Walter Payton College Prep, praises him as “unparalleled at creating a student-centered environment.”

Amanda Bright teaches journalism and composition at Mattoon High School in Mattoon, Ill., where she developed the journalism curriculum. She is student advisor to the high school’s award-winning newspaper. Medill senior Sarah Eberspacher credits her former teacher with inspiring her to pursue journalism in college. In describing her teaching method, Bright notes: “The moment I become static and unresponsive to the changes in my students and our culture, I will lose all effectiveness.” Eberspacher says her former teacher has no cause to worry: “When I left Mattoon High School, the notion of studying journalism in college was relatively nonexistent. Just four years later, there are three or four students heading off each year with plans to become the next Al Neuharth, Bob Costas or Anna Quindlen. The woman behind that is Mrs. Bright.”

Christine Jawork teaches African and Asian studies at Harriton Senior High School in Rosemont, Pa., where she also directs the Students Building Community Team and coaches the Mock Trial Team and World Affairs Club. Lauren Marcuson, her school prinicipal, describes Jawork as “an advocate for her students.” Jawork says her primary goal as an educator “is to help students re-discover their own passion for knowledge, which, by high school, has often long been in latency.” Weinberg senior Benjamin Goldberg nominated his former teacher and says that she “forced her students to confront unchallenged assumption and to think critically about history and the study of culture. She taught with an incredible energy and charisma, bringing her whole self into the classroom and inspiring us to learn. I looked forward to her class every day.”

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