I sat down with YES Prep Southwest’s Dean of Students, Reem Semaan, to discuss her pathway to leadership.
Tell us about your background. Where are you from?
I was born in Lebanon and moved to the US when I was 5. I grew up in Reidsville, NC. It was a very textbook segregated city with literal railroad tracks…. The kids from the upper-class areas were the only ones in the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes.
How did you get from North Carolina to YES Prep?
I went to UNC-Chapel Hill. My whole life, I wanted to be a doctor. I majored in biology and was in all the pre-med clubs. When people asked me what I wanted to do, I had zero doubt that’s the road I wanted to take. I took my MCAT and applied for med schools, and started to have doubts that I’d get in. I needed a different plan. A TFA recruiter just happened to email me because I was the president of an Arab student organization and led the dance group. I’d never heard of TFA or thought about teaching. In our meeting, she started talking about educational inequity, and I realized that the high school I’d attended was very similar to the one she’d described: only a handful of kids were in AP and IB and the rest did not get any attention. I was sold. I applied for TFA and cancelled my med school applications. I thought I’d do 2 years of TFA, retake the MCAT, and then reapply to the med schools I wanted to go to. I’d put that I wanted to go to LA, Atlanta, or DC, but someone emailed me from TFA to tell me that Houston needed science teachers. I figured, I’m doing this for a reason, if they need science teachers, that’s where I will go. I started at YES Prep Southwest, and I’m still here now.
How did you become a leader at YES Prep?
I taught biology my first year, and at the end of my first year, the co-School Directors pulled me into their office. They said you do a great job with culture, you’d be a great Grade Level Chair (GLC). For my second and third year, I taught biology and was 9th GLC. After my second year, I thought I’d be teaching one more year and then I’ll apply to med school. After my third year, I was sold; I’ve made my decision and I love this. I was seeing the impact YES was having on educational inequity and it motivated me to want to continue in the field. These students deserve to have college be a choice in their lives and I was driven by the chance to make that possible. My fourth year, I taught AP bio, regular bio, and was 12th GLC. My fifth year at YES, I was Dean of Students. Now, I’m a lead Dean of Students and a member of the Leading Excellence Aspire cohort.
What keeps you at YES Prep?
The biggest reason is relationships– the relationships I’ve built with students, staff, parents, and community. They’re so strong. One of our Student Support Counselors put it this way: there’s a culture at YES where it’s a safe place to make mistakes and grow. There’s pressure to do well, but I have the space to learn and improve and the support to do so. And this culture of support has trickled down to students.