The day after the 2016 elections, Noha Kolkailah had an insight that led, in less than two years, to the creation of the Peace Academy of Sciences and Arts, a summer enrichment program for children, which delivered a four-week curriculum to fifty students, ages 6-9, last summer. If that sounds unlikely, it is probably no less likely that a Muslim woman would become the assistant principal of a Catholic high school, but a few minutes with Noha dispels any notion that either accomplishment was an accident.
Noha was born in Cairo, Egypt, and came to the United States in 1977 when she was two. Her father, Faysal, was studying aerospace engineering, first in Cincinnati and then in Louisiana, where he earned his PhD at Louisiana State University. He taught at LSU and then accepted a teaching position at Cal Poly. The family, which also includes Noha’s mother, Rasha, and her younger sisters, Nahlah and Naiyerah, moved to San Luis Obispo in 1985.
While in Louisiana the family drove each weekend to New Orleans to bond with the Muslim community in that city. “We knew when we moved that there was no Muslim community on the Central Coast, and that was a concern,” Noha said. “We met one other family and started having prayers in their home. That attracted other families and at the same time more families started moving in.”
Noha attended C.L. Smith, Laguna Middle School and split time between San Luis Obispo High School and a Muslim school in Los Angeles.
“There were only two other Muslim students at SLOHS. It was hard being different, to maintain my identity and have a voice, even though I had a close group of friends. It was a conflict between assimilation and understanding and being who I was. It was a solo experience. I built up a lot of resiliency. My experience is similar to other minorities. How do we navigate in a society where we’re different? What can our education systems do to help with that?”
Following high school graduation, at sixteen, Noha enrolled at Cal Poly where she studied biochemistry and helped start the Muslim Student Association. She experienced prejudice at every level of her education and in her social life. “But I was always confident in who I was. Even with the hurt or the pain that accompanied someone saying something negative or misguided about my faith, and even as shy as I am, it would make me upset enough to say something about it. I was always able to speak my truth. I love people. I have a deep sense that people are innately good. If people know the truth this world would be a different place.”
Noha met her husband, Eltahry Elghandour, at Cal Poly, where he teaches mechanical engineering. They have three daughters, Tasneem, Beela and Jennah. She completed a teaching credential and started teaching first at Arroyo Grande High School and then at St. Joseph’s.
“The first year at St. Joe’s was difficult. There were some calls from parents about me being a Muslim, but the students were great and really supported me.”
After eight years at St. Joe’s, Noha decided she wanted to do more in education, so she returned to school to get a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and Administration. During her studies she met the former principal of Mission College Prep, J.D. Childs. “One of our assignments was to interview a great leader. We would talk for hours. He invited me to the school, gave me a tour and then gave me a job,” Noha said with a laugh.
First hired as a chemistry teacher and an accreditation coordinator in 2012, Noha went on to become the academic dean, the faculty dean and then assistant principal, now in her third year in that position. It has been a good experience from the start. “There are a lot of similarities in our faiths. That’s what I keep in mind, the alignment in our faiths, what we have in common. There’s a real feeling of family and community at MCP. J.D. did something great when he first hired a Jewish woman to be assistant principal and then a Muslim. It planted the seed for an evolving sense of, and commitment to, more diversity.”
Imagine waking up on the morning after the elections in 2016 as an immigrant, a woman and a Muslim. In all three categories, even as an American citizen, it might cause some unease, which it definitely did in Noha. The question she asked herself was, “Where do we go from here?”
Her answer was that education needed to more directly address the issues confronting and dividing our country. “We have to raise generation of kids who can make better decisions for our country, and we have to start when they’re young. We can’t have people living in fear.”
Noha’s thoughts focused on global awareness and responsibility, kindness and compassion. “How do we nurture those things that are innate within us, the kindness and compassion every human has so that by the time we’re adults we still have those qualities and they can be the basis of compassionate leadership?”
After the beginning of efforts to ban Muslims from certain countries, Noha and others organized a “Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbors” event which the Women’s March helped publicize. Interest in it grew so large they had to move from the Mosque of Nasreen to the Latter Day Saints church on Foothill Boulevard. Over 800 people attended.
One of the attendees, Michael Mazzala, approached Noha after the closing speech by a local cleric and said, “You, a strong Muslim woman, should have made that speech.” During the conversation that followed, Noha shared her thoughts with Mazzala and the momentum for the Peace Academy began. They’ve been working together ever since.
The Peace Academy curriculum is organized around four basic principles: Self Awareness, Global Citizenship, Social Justice and Environmental Awareness. A diverse group of local educators, spiritual leaders, business and public health professionals has guided the development of the academy. “Our first summer program was amazing,” Noha said. “Each week had a different theme. Next summer we hope to expand to two age groups, 6-9 and 10-13. We will also be hosting a Leadership Conference for students 14-18.”
“It’s been a lot of work,” Noha said, “but it was beautiful, absolutely satisfying and gratifying. Parent response was great based on surveys we administered after the program. I feel there’s an awakening in the country. This is America, we own what is happening in our country because we love our country. We see a need to do more and we take action, not just think about it. My urge to do something is more powerful than my fear of being judged or ridiculed because of who I am or what I believe.” The families and staff who participated last summer will meet for a reunion on February 2nd, location to be determined.
In an increasingly diverse country, Noha and her colleagues represent the future, a future they want to shape through action and education. San Luis Obispo is an innovative community, and thanks to visionaries like Noha Kolkailah, it will continue to be.