In 2003, while deployed to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom, I went on various convoys and used to see many children in small towns and neighborhoods running around barefoot playing with their friends. One thing I noticed is that there was a lot of loose trash and broken glass. I noticed that many children did not have shoes on. I also wondered if these children in this war-torn nation were not going to school and the adverse impact it can have on their future. This imagery of children in poverty running around with broken glass barefoot has stuck with me.

As I reflected on my time while deployed it made me realize that I needed to make a difference and make an impact on people who are in poverty and in most need. My grandmother and mother were both educators, so I could not think of a better calling than to become a teacher myself. I intentionally only interviewed at schools where I could make the most difference. Teaching in a setting where many students were economically disadvantaged and had faced trauma really allowed me to gain more empathy for the challenges many of our community members face.

As a policy maker I keep the stories of my students and those images from my time in Iraq in my mind, which remind me that there are a lot of folks living in high concentrations of poverty. These memories are a constant reminder that I should not be complacent. Instead, I take pride in being assertive and intentional about helping, respecting and being empathetic to as many vulnerable children and adults as possible.

Prior to his appointment as Governor Northam’s Secretary of Education, Atif Qarni taught at Beville Middle School in Prince William County, leading courses in civics, economics, U.S History, and mathematics. He also served as a GED Night School Instructor. In 2016, Atif was recognized as the Dale City Teacher of the Year.

In addition to his work as an educator, Atif is a former Sergeant of the United States Marine Corps, and was deployed to Iraq in 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has also served at the state level, having been appointed by Governor Terry McAuliffe to the Small Business Commission in 2013.

– Atif Qarni (Virginia Secretary of Education)