The pandemic summer of 2020 was tough for Christina Sirignano ’20, ’21.
She had worked her way through school as an undergraduate, first at Northern Essex Community College, where she earned an associate degree in philosophy, and then at UMass Lowell as a history major, with some time off to work in between.
But to earn a master’s degree through the School of Education so that she could teach, she had to take out loans, and on top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic had left her temporarily jobless.
So she was overjoyed to get an email saying that she had been awarded $1,300 – enough to pay for one online summer class, plus some textbooks – through the Socrates Lagios Endowed Scholarship, established by his family to honor the late high school English teacher.
“I was very happy,” Sirignano says. “I took three classes during the summer of COVID because I was unemployed, and I was able to not worry about money quite as much.”
Lagios was hired to teach and supervise student teachers in the School of Education’s Master of Education for English after he retired from teaching English in the Newton, Massachusetts, schools, says Education Prof. Emerita Anita Greenwood, former dean of the school.
Lagios taught at UMass Lowell for only a short time before he died in 1993. His family and friends wanted to support graduate students with financial need by establishing the scholarship in his honor, says Demetra Gys, senior director of development. Sirignano is a great example of how helpful such scholarships can be to education students, who have to complete a four-month, unpaid student teaching practicum, Gys says.
Sirignano knew that she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a high school student studying European history, Latin, ancient Greek and philosophy in Haverhill High School’s Classical Academy.
“I loved school so much that I wanted to find a job where I could always be in school,” she says. “I just love working with kids and seeing that light in their eyes when they get it. I don’t think it will ever get old for me.”
Sirignano needed to pay her own way through college, so she started in philosophy at Northern Essex, studying part time and working full time at entry-level jobs that offered her a flexible schedule. She took a couple of years off to earn money before transferring to UMass Lowell, and then continued to work while studying full time.
Here, she switched her major to history because it offers more teaching opportunities. She fell in love with the Middle Ages, and she decided to minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
“I like how misunderstood the Middle Ages are. Everyone calls that period the ‘Dark Ages,’ but it depends where you’re looking in the world,” she says. “In the Middle East in particular, they were having their own enlightenment. They preserved all of the ancient Greek and Roman knowledge when people in Europe were trying to destroy it. Without the Middle East, Europe wouldn’t have had the Renaissance.”
Sirignano was able to take two graduate education classes during her senior year, earning credits that counted toward both degrees. She then took a year of classes and worked at the Daley Middle School in Lowell as a paraprofessional, while doing her pre-practicum observations and lessons at Chelmsford High School.
She also volunteered at another Lowell middle school, and then interned in-person and virtually during the pandemic at the Tsongas Industrial History Center, where she worked on curriculum materials for a series of voting rights history workshops before starting her student teaching practicum at Chelmsford High School in spring 2021.
She was so successful that the district wanted to keep her on – and this time, the pandemic worked in her favor, because she was able to get an emergency license to teach English. She taught as a long-term substitute at McCarthy Middle School in Chelmsford for the rest of the year, while completing her license to teach history. Starting in fall 2021, she will teach sixth-grade social studies at the Alexander B. Bruce School in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
She’s grateful for the scholarship, and she applauds the Lagios family for trying to raise more money for the endowment by reaching out to his former colleagues and friends.
“I think that would be amazing if they could help even more people. Every bit helps, and that was a big help for me,” she says. “For someone who was working minimum wage jobs while I went to school, it made a huge difference.”