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My Student Experience: Syna Sharma Advocates for Teacher Pay Through NC State’s Oaks Leadership Scholars Program

Syna Sharma with quote graphic: Advocacy is important to me because I went into education wanting to improve the education system

In NC State University’s Oaks Leadership Scholars Program, each student engages in an action-based project that entails advocating for a policy proposal they feel strongly about. For Syna Sharma, a middle grades English language arts and social studies education major in the NC State College of Education, that proposal is the American Teacher Act, a bill in Congress that would provide financial incentives for states to raise teacher salaries to at least $60,000 over the life of the four-year program.

“Advocacy is important to me because I went into education wanting to improve the education system,” Sharma said. “I think advocating for teacher salaries is a precursor to improving anything in education. Because if we ensure that teachers are empowered, and they’re financially stable, then we can then have teachers join this coalition of advocating to make education better.”

The Oaks Leadership Scholars Program is designed to prepare students to become leaders of change in their communities with the goal of reaching justice and equity outcomes. As part of their action-based projects, students are encouraged to reach out to existing organizations that are already supporting policy proposals the students are passionate about. That’s how Sharma came across the Teacher Salary Project, a non-profit organization that co-authored the American Teacher Act.

“Even though I care about supporting the future generation of students, I also need to be financially secure,” Sharma said. “I care about supporting the American Teacher Act, because it directly impacts my life.”

Helping others has always been a priority for Sharma. Initially eyeing a career in health care, Sharma, a Park Scholar, enrolled at NC State as a biomedical engineering major before deciding instead to make an impact as educator, transferring into the College of Education in the fall of 2022. What drew her to College of Education, Sharma said, was its middle grades English language arts and social studies education program, specifically the emphasis placed on digital literacy, inquiry-based learning and citizenship.

During her time in the college, Sharma said she’s seen how faculty are committed to supporting students like her and engaging in work that makes the field of education a better place. 

“I’ve definitely appreciated the support from the faculty,” Sharma said. “If I ever have questions, or if I want to share a perspective on something, the faculty are very open to listen to that. And I really appreciate how everyone is committed to improving education across North Carolina and everywhere.”

In addition to the faculty support, Sharma has also enjoyed the opportunity to engage with the students during her field experience at Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School.

“Every single child cares about learning,” Sharma said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people to see that because a lot of people have deficit-thinking mindsets, so it’s nice to see how smart each child is.”

As part of the Oaks Leadership Scholars Program, Sharma will travel to Washington D.C. later this semester when she will have an opportunity to advocate for the American Teacher Act in person. Sharma said she appreciates how the program, by connecting her with similarly passionate students, has motivated her to make a difference.

“To be an Oaks Leadership Scholar means being an advocate for equity, recognizing systems of oppression and at least taking one step toward trying to alleviate or transform that system, rather than just going along with the status quo,” Sharma said.

When she becomes a teacher, she hopes to inspire her students to do the same. 

“I chose education because I want to empower young people to make a difference in the world and advocate for issues they care about,” Sharma said.