Meet Our People: Professor Saif Rao

Professor Saif Rao

Professor Saif Rao has been inspiring students in his Biology classes at Union since the Fall of 2004, after working the prior year as a full-time temporary instructor. His initial experience with Union was as a Biology tutor for the Academic Learning Center. Raised in the Pakistani village of Ghazanffargargh, Prof. Rao earned a bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Botany from the Bahauddin Zakarya University, his first master’s degree is in Zoology from the University of the Punjab, Pakistan and his second master’s degree is in Food Microbiology from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
On Apr. 9, Professor Rao received a John and Suanne Roueche Excellence Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College. Professor Rao was cited for his exceptional level of student engagement in his Biology classrooms.
Q: So it’s been quite a journey for you to Union.

A: Yes, it was a journey. It began growing up in a small village, sometimes having to walk three miles to school. I was lucky to have good teachers who helped me strive in my life. I had an amazing teacher, Miss Salma, in sixth grade. I still didn’t know my English alphabet and she singled me out to give me special attention before and after school. She knew that I was from a “landlord family” and would stop studying if I struggle in my studies.

Q: OK, what’s a “landlord family” and what does it have to do with school?

A: My family owned over two hundred acres of fertile land, located between the Indus and Chenab Rivers. My family grew wheat, cotton, sugar cane and vegetables. It also owned mangoes farm, dates farm, and fish farms. I come from a big family of eleven brothers and sisters. A lot of the time, the children of landlords don’t try to learn, because they know they will have the land to fall back on but Miss Salma believed in me. By the time I reached seventh grade, I caught up with the rest of the class. I was very good in math and my High School teacher Mr. Younas had very high expectations of me. After my High School board exam, he didn’t want to see me due to the fact that I received a 96 instead of 100 on my exam.

Q: Were these schools English speaking ones? How’d you learn such good English?

A: In Pakistan, despite the predominant language being Urdu, all of the major science courses in college are taught in English. I had a teacher, Mr. Ramadan, who told us (his students) to buy English music cassettes and practice writing the lyrics. We also had to make “pen pals” with students from other countries. Mine was a girl named Rebecca from Iceland. Anyways, I think about the teachers I had and realized that I wanted to become a teacher as well so I would have the ability to teach the sciences in a way to help students learn. Mr. Ramadan always began and ended his class with a joke which relaxed the students as well as grabbed their attention.

Q: All right, but after the master’s in Pakistan and the other one in Australia, how’d you wind up here in Union County College?

A: My niece was our match-maker and arranged my marriage. She sent me the pictures of her friend (who would become my wife) when I was in Australia. I will always be thankful to my niece to find the most perfect match for me. My wife was a US citizen and attending college in America, so we made a permanent move to the States in April 2002. I taught at the postgraduate level in Pakistan and enjoyed teaching there. When I came to US, my nephew (who was a graduate of UCC) introduced me to Ms. Healy, who sent me to Ms. Helen, who guided me to contact Ms Gail (then Director of ALC). I told Ms. Gail that I just want to tutor at ALC and would do it even as a volunteer.  Gail told me, “We have to pay you because if we don’t, we can’t kick you out if you’re not doing a good job.” So I joined UCC as a tutor in Fall of 2002.

Q: So from the ALC to a tenure track as a Biology instructor in 2004.

A: I developed a good (reputation) as a professional tutor at the ALC. So when I applied for a teaching job in the Biology department, I was hired as a temporary full-time instructor in Fall 2003. I was able to get a tenure track full-time job in 2004. I feel blessed to be teaching at Union County College.

Q: You Bio profs have some awfully dense materials to cover in classes like Anatomy & Physiology and Microbiology.

A: Yes, these are not easy courses. I use humor in my class to maintain student attention. I try to reinforce major points by relating the material to actual experiences in real life. In my classes students are not afraid to ask questions. I try to answer questions completely and freely. Students get class handouts in advance and are expected to read the handouts before they come to the class. One of the things I’ve been doing recently is recording classes with an audio file that I post on Angel. Students can listen to the recording whenever they want on their SMART phones. To give students extra lab time, I also began offering Microbiology students an open lab once a week, during a time when there are no scheduled labs. Students tend to learn more and be successful when you provide the opportunity for them. We have to present the information in ways which are interesting and involving. Students should feel that the instructor has a passion in teaching and is there for them to succeed in life. For those of us in this profession, the greatest reward is when a student says the words, “I got it.”
  They inspire me.
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