Alina Ursu: Overcoming Adversity
Teachers have a unique calling in this life, and a very important place in this world. A mother’s desire to care for her children can be one of the most powerful sources of true grit and determination in life, but it is rare to find a person who takes this drive a step further to care for the wellbeing of other children. This rare quality is exemplified in the life story of Alina Ursu, a Rroma teacher I sat down with in a small coffee shop, in Brasov.
Ursu’s life, which is now dedicated to the wellbeing of her students and children, began in a strongly industrialized town in Romanian Moldavia. She then moved to a town called Roman in the county of Neamt after she turned eight. In Roman, she got married, had children and began the early stages of her teaching career, working at a foundation that looked after Rroma children. Being a Rroma herself, Ms. Ursu had an understanding of their culture, and was able to effectively teach the children the basics of how to behave, be polite, wash their hands and other things of that nature. For five years, Ms Alina Ursu worked for this foundation, becoming involved in multiple facets of its functionality, including working as a cleaning lady and teaching the Rromani language. Eventually, however, she began to realize that while she was offering valuable services to these kids, she was not offering the same to her own.
In her search for a better life for her family, she contacted her sister, who lives in Brasov. Her sister offered her a job babysitting her children for 300 Euro per month, triple what she was making before. Using this salary, she was able to get herself through school, at the age of 40, and graduate with a teaching degree, which she uses to this day.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and change the subject. Most people in this world don’t take rejection well. Regardless of the reason, who wants to be the shut-out, or an outcast from a group? Once a feeling like this sets in, it’s easy to begin to feel bitterness, resentment and a general desire to give up on people. There are some people, however, who posses an intrinsic ability to stand up to these situations, and Alina fits the bill perfectly. In fact, facing situations like this as a young woman helped her develop the drive it took to get where she is today.
From a young age, she exhibited a desire to overcome challenges and hardships, which were occurring in abundance because of her ethnicity. In primary school, one of her teachers organized a trip up a mountain for her class, but didn’t tell her about it. When Alina heard the news and asked her teacher why she was left out, the teacher responded by saying she thought Ursu’s family couldn’t afford the trip. In response, she worked for two days in a field to raise the money, telling her parents that the teacher was paying her way. On the way up the mountain, Ms. Ursu led the group, and got so far ahead the teacher had to ask her to slow down.
Another time, as a kid in school, Alina was forced to play on a handball team by a gym teacher, even though she was born with a physical disability that affected one of her legs and had a doctor’s note to prove it. At first apprehensive, she ended up being one of the key players on the team, and stuck with the sport for several years.
This sense of personal drive and refusal to quit is something she instills in her students to this day. She is a mentor for several kids in Brasov, and usually helps them through their problems by giving examples of success from her own life. When a student comes to her facing adversity or uncertainty about something, she may tell them to look at how she was once a cleaning lady and now is a successful teacher. This can help the student see that it is possible to do what they wish for. Alina said she has seen peoples’ attitudes change when she provides her own examples of overcoming obstacles from her life; they feel more empowered to handle their own problems.
She strives to make a difference in her students’ senses of personal acceptance as well. Alina Ursu wants to see her students walk with pride, not with their heads down out of shame for being a Rroma. Counter to the Rroma tradition of never talking about any of your feelings, she also encourages students to talk about what they feel, about love and other feelings. She has seen a change in their behavior as a result of this as well.
Ms Alina Ursu’s successes have garnered her recognition in the community, and she was even invited to speak at the inaugural TEDxBrasov talk in May 2015. Her goal now is to teach all kids, not just Rroma, about their worth and value, and that they can stand up to achieve what they want if they set their minds to it.