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“There you are, not here I am” — Elementary education graduate uses personal journey to impact future students – News

UAB elementary education major Matthew Norris says, after arriving in America, he had little knowledge of the new culture his life would be impacted by, let alone the educational system.

IMG 6979Matthew Norris, a senior elementary education major at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, exudes a passion for teaching that surpasses mere enthusiasm. Amid the challenges of adapting to a new country, Norris drew inspiration and comfort from the unwavering dedication of his mother, who happens to also be a teacher.

“Having a mother who is a teacher had a huge impact on my choosing to be in this field,” Norris said.

After arriving in America, he had little knowledge of the new culture his life would be impacted by, let alone the educational system. Norris says he is grateful to have had his mother teach at the same high school he attended and found comfort in his mother’s ability to make things make sense.

“Having her return home daily was a comfort, knowing that she could make sense for me what was not making sense before,” Norris said. “I often heard story after story of the impact she was having on my peers. From then on, it was a no-brainer — there was no other career worth the effort for me. I could not think of anything more fulfilling than to impact the next generation.”

For Norris, that set things in motion that he too could have an impact on students, his community and hopefully the world.

Two worlds apart

Norris’ educational journey is marked by more than just geographical change. He was born in Uganda, and he found access to education was scarce, let alone a full education. In Uganda, he says, not many students make it past primary seven, which is the equivalent to knowledge gained after fifth or sixth grade in the United States.

“This is because I lived on less than a dollar a day,” Norris said. “As a child, I would hope for possible scholarships, but those are kept within specific social classes. If hopelessness had a basement, I would be living in it due to my given circumstances; but God, being rich in mercy, had a different plan for me.”

“I could not think of anything more fulfilling than to impact the next generation.”


Norris was adopted in 2012 and arrived in Alabama, and while he had a new home with new opportunities, he still felt far behind his peers and classmates.

“As I began to attend classes in America, I started to realize how far behind everyone I was,” Norris said. “The country and culture were so different from what I had ever known, and I was often lost. I had to learn how to navigate this new life where everything looked, tasted and sounded different from ever before. Thank God for the family He had given me because, without them, I never would’ve made it.”

He spent a lot of time at school learning and even more at home learning with his parents and siblings.

UAB and beyond

With a plan to become an elementary educator, Norris chose UAB because of its proximity to home and the opportunities to impact the Birmingham community.

Norris Uganda“A huge part of choosing UAB was the location,” Norris said. “I like the fact that it is right in the heart of Birmingham, which means there are countless opportunities for me as a student. It is also very close to the community in which I grew up, so going anywhere else was not ever a choice I was going to make.”

Norris, who will graduate in April 2024, says the experiences while fulfilling his cooperative teaching requirements have changed his perspective on teaching.

“I remember watching my cooperative teacher daily keep up with each student’s progress and figure out how to best help each student reach their full potential,” Norris said. “I remember the countless extra hours that she stayed at school thinking of each student and what would help them grasp the coming concepts in the day to come. I remember specifically how much she cared for them and not simply educationally.”

He says students go through situations outside of the classroom that impact their learning, and he has learned in his experiences that teachers are much more than givers of knowledge — they are mentors, friends and as close as family.

Norris envisions using his unique background and story as a teaching tool for his future students.

“A mentality I have learned to have over the past few years is the ‘There you are, not here I am’ mentality,” Norris said. “I want to especially apply this to all my students. I want to see them where they are and meet them there. Since I am the embodiment of what struggling is because of my background and upbringing, I am, and will be, understanding that students have diverse issues. I will remember to take the education of my students very seriously, because who knows what trials they have endured to be where they are? Wouldn’t it be a shame for me to have to travel across the globe for any teacher not to take my studies seriously? Yes, it would. So, I too shall care for the students I am being entrusted with.”

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