From Senegal to the science lab: Che Ka’s Auburn journey

Students working on project together

Cheikhouna “Che” Ka, a Master’s student in the College of Education’s science ed program, feels deeply indebted to his teachers. As a result, the outstanding evolutionary biologist is struggling to choose between his two loves: becoming a public school science teacher, or pursuing a research career in biology, where he holds three doctoral program offers. Meanwhile, he is having a great time leading local school children in a STEM after school club working with his major professor, Chris Schnittka, Ph.D.

Che was born in the west African country of Senegal and stayed there until age 14, when he was able to come to Auburn and join his parents and younger siblings, who had been living here for several years.

“In my town in Senegal there were no public schools, and my native tongue is Wolof, along with some fluency in Arabic,” he explained. “I was raised by my grandmother until my family was finally able to send for me so I could pursue an education. It was an unusual situation arriving here: I didn’t speak any English, and I really didn’t know my family. So it was a lot to take in.”

He started off at Drake Middle School learning the basics: how to count, memorizing his ABCs, and tackling basic addition and subtraction. After a full year of getting a feel for school, Che began a regular 8th grade curriculum while continuing to take ESL classes to improve his English.

“Mr. Basil Conway was my first mathematics teacher, and he has had a profound influence on my life,” Che said. “I knew so little but he and the other teachers at Drake worked hard with me to build both my knowledge and my confidence. This was especially true of the science teachers. In addition to my class work, they gave me crossword puzzles and things like that to help me keep learning at home.”

Che graduated from Auburn High School in 2012, fluent in English and alive with the love of science.

“I remained incredibly inspired by my teachers and after graduation made an effort to contact Mr. Conway – who by that time was Dr. Conway, having earned a Ph.D. in mathematics education at Auburn. He was a professor at Columbus State. As soon as I called him he set up a dinner and we had a great reunion. I was able to tell him how much I appreciated all that he had done for me. He really couldn’t believe how well everything worked out, and we still stay in touch.”

Che began his college career at Southern Union before entering Auburn and finding his way to a Biology major, where he flourished. But he couldn’t shake his love for education so upon graduation he entered the Science Education Master’s program and is now immersed in serving other young learners. He is particularly enthralled with the STEM club and seeing children learn.

Children building with glue and cardboard

“We have the kids come to us after school to work on a curriculum Dr. Schnittka designed,” he said. “We bring different types of household materials and the students explore them and learn how they work in terms of their engineering potential. We might make a drinking cup out of cardboard as they ask themselves whether this particular material is appropriate for this particular job. The goal is for them to create something that solves a problem. Recently one student had a broken toothbrush holder and built a new one instead of buying one at the store. When they build it themselves, it boosts their confidence while also teaching them science and engineering. This is the exact thing that makes us innately human, and is something we have done from the dawn of time. I used to do just this sort of thing as a boy in Senegal.”

The students range from age 5 to 14, and have a final goal this semester of working as a team to create a windmill that will power electric lights. Again, the materials will just be common household items.

I want to make the world a better place as a result of what people have done for me. I want to give back. How better to do that than to share the gift of education?

At home, Che sees other ways people build things from common objects. “Neither of my parents has an education,” he said. “My dad came here as a refugee. He sets up his flea market stand in Smiths Station, just selling whatever he can get his hands on. He is always thinking about what he might use, and what others might want. Mom braids hair in the house, and I have three younger siblings. Most first generation college students have few academic supports, but I have had great role models all along like Dr. Conway. I have so many opportunities available to me that at times it is hard for me to believe.”

“It’s unique here at Auburn,” he went on. “Once people understood my situation I received tons of support. Dr. Virtue (C&T department head) has been a huge help. He worked with some colleagues in the Biology Department to get funding for me to start my Master’s here in Science Ed. I cannot express enough thanks for the way all these people have helped me build myself as a scholar and as a person, and for just giving me a chance.”

Che is especially grateful to Dr. Schnittka.

“She is the one who first reached out to me,” he said. “She has been like a role model and a hero. I could go on for days about her. And part of that is what makes me want to be a teacher.”

Schnittka has mutual feelings for Che.

“Che is one of the most amazing people I have ever known,” she said. “As a student, he is insightful and creative, and as a teacher he is intuitive and caring. His depth of knowledge is astounding, and he has a very keen sense of how to reach kids. Working with him has been an absolute blessing to my life. He has such authenticity. I don’t know how else to describe it — there is just nothing opaque about him. He sees clearly with a wondering, curious eye, and soaks up everything around him with a refreshing outlook. Likewise, he opens himself up to people who are curious about his life experiences, sharing what he knows and what he has learned through his adventures. He will make such an impact in this world in terms of helping people gain scientific literacy, but more than that, his gentle presence will change young people’s lives.”

One way or another, Che will wind up sharing his love for education. “I am motivated knowing that most people in my situation haven’t had these opportunities,” he said. “I want to make the world a better place as a result of what people have done for me. I want to give back. How better to do that than to share the gift of education?”

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