Some say she started a movement of multicultural education in Carroll County, but for Aurora M. Pagulayan her work has been more of a mission.
A native of the Philippines, Pagulayan came to the United States in 1967 to earn her master's degree in education at Bucknell University. The next year, she began teaching fourth grade in Carroll at Charles Carroll Elementary in Union Mills.
"You can imagine the cultural shock for an educator coming from a place where teachers are revered to a very permissive society where students talk to adults with more freedom and ease," said Pagulayan, 61, who taught for two years at a school in the Philippines before coming to the United States. "Seeing students talking back to teachers and adults was very shocking. I had to deal with the cultural clash."
Thus began her journey to build bridges between cultures -- her own and everyone else's.
"What motivated me was realizing when I came here that this was a very conservative county and there was hardly any diversity," said Pagulayan, now an assistant principal at West Middle School in Westminster.
"People have a lot of stereotypes about certain groups of people -- people from different ethnic backgrounds," she said. "I made it a point to try to educate them the best I can."
Her early efforts included incorporating ethnic activities into classroom lessons, such as having her pupils practice their reading skills by following instructions to make eggrolls. She brought food native to her home in the Philippines to share with teachers.
She had details about other countries' holidays read during the school's morning announcements. She had her pupils attend cultural and ethnic celebrations. She organized after-school programs -- some of the first in the county -- and created lessons that included activities centered around different ethnicities.
"I wanted people exposed to people of different nationalities and backgrounds," she said.
When Pagulayan was named a recipient of the 2006 Minority Achievement Award -- given by the Achievement Initiative for Maryland's Minority Students Council to an educator in each of the state's 24 districts -- she didn't tell any of her students.
The award is given to educators or groups who have "contributed significantly to the progress of minority, disabled or low socio-economic students," according to the school system.
Despite attending a gala ceremony and dinner held in April to honor Pagulayan, she kept word of the award to herself.
"I don't like to boast," she said when people asked her why she hadn't told students the news.
But others are willing to do it for her.
Patricia Levroney, the school system's minority achievement liaison, credits Pagulayan with directing the course of multicultural education in the county and influencing her own career choices.
"She's a ball of fire," Levroney said of the woman she considers a mentor. "She's a champion of the students who don't fit in. This has always been her passion."
Levroney said watching Pagulayan in action has inspired her to pursue her interests in multicultural education.
"I wouldn't be on this journey if it weren't for her pulling me into the fold. I had ideas, but she pulled me along," Levroney said. "My journey is about being myself but being able to get along and work with everyone. She taught me these things."
In an essay written about five years ago as part of a doctoral program application to the University of Baltimore, Pagulayan wrote about her goals for improving educational opportunities for the growing minority student population in Carroll's schools. In part, it read:
"I have witnessed the unintentional lack of understanding of the cultural differences and the one-sided struggle of the minority students to learn the white culture and adopt it at the expense of downgrading their own cultural identity," Pagulayan wrote. "How can the school put the minority and the majority groups on the same social plane for the same opportunity for success? What instructional strategy can educators implement to positively affect the understanding and tolerance of each other's cultural differences? These are some of the questions I want to explore."
She said that in the time since she wrote that essay, she has been encouraged by Carroll's commitment to its English for Students of Other Languages program. But more needs to be done, she said.
"I would like the ESOL program to have more support ... so it can increase staffing to deal with the increasing population of second-language learners," she said. "The program is undermanned. It needs more help."
More recently, she has channeled her energy into a program called Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and the school system.
About a year ago, Liberty High in Eldersburg was the first school in Carroll to host a two-day leadership workshop through the program, more commonly known by its acronym -- SPIRIT. The program is aimed at increasing understanding across racial and ethnic lines to alleviate tensions among students and help them develop better relationships.
This school year, each of the county's seven high schools and several middle schools participated in the SPIRIT program. Pupils at West Middle who participated in the program recently reflected upon the difference that working with Pagulayan has made in their lives.
"I realized that stereotyping is wrong. You should get to know the person and figure out what you think of them," said Becca Gnau, 12, a sixth-grader.
Brenna Nave, 12, also a sixth-grader at West Middle, said she isfortunate.
"A lot of people don't have this opportunity to work with an assistant principal to make these kinds of changes," Brenna said. "If they did, a lot of problems would change."
With feedback from pupils such as Becca and Brenna, Pagulayan said she can see the fruits of her labor starting to blossom.
"The more students talk about diversity and tolerance -- very specific information -- that's an opening. The more openings we have, the more light can come in."