Alumna proud to be part of a cultural mosaic
The first Arab-American high school principal in Illinois, Andrew High School’s Abir Othman (’96) said she never would have finished college, but for a supportive faculty and staff at Governors State University (GSU) which welcomed and guided the her as a young wife and mom.
As a child, Othman had moved to the U.S. from Palestine with her family seeking a better life. They settled on the South Side of Chicago, and her father, a skilled welder in their home country, took a job as a store clerk. After high school, Othman enrolled in another college but was quickly overwhelmed and felt lost. Later, she earned her associate degree from Moraine Valley Community College, then followed friends and family to GSU, where she found a community—and wings.
“I was very young already with a family and, the teachers at Governors State were very compassionate,” said Othman, who graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a teaching certificate.
Now, the mom of four, Othman has since earned both a master’s and doctorate degree and has served students for more than two decades. Recognition started rolling in just as the world locked down to stem the spread of COVID-19.
In 2019, Illinois Principal Association ( South Cook) named her Assistant Principal of the Year. In 2020, the IPA gave her the same honor, and in April 2022 – Arab American Heritage Month – Othman received the emPOWER 10 Award from The Arab-American Business and Professional Association.
In recognizing Othman, the group said the educator and others had “overcome numerous obstacles to rise to the top of fields where representation of Arab-Americans, and Arab-American women, is either too low or entirely non-existent.”
At GSU, Othman said an inclusive culture resonated, allowing her to excel, finishing her degree early—with the distinction of high honors.
“I felt very seen and supported, “she said. “ Those people at GSU were my lifeline and I will never forget them.” One instructor comes to mind for her influence: “Rashidah Muhammad made me fall in love with Black literature."
Othman took what she learned at GSU into the classroom at Sandburg High School as a student teacher and, after graduation, continued teaching in a private school.
She returned to Consolidated High School District 230, which comprises Stagg, Sandburg and Andrew high schools. During her two-decade-plus tenure at District 230, Othman has served students from almost every position including as Associate Principal of Curriculum and Instruction and Student Services, Head Dean of Students at Stagg High School, Dean of Students at Andrew High School, and now Principal.
When she reflects on all her experiences and the awards, Othman is humbled.
“I pinch myself. I never would have imagined this. My mom and dad didn’t get to school, and that is why I am so passionate that students get as many opportunities as possible to do whatever they dream about or desire. We lean on each other at Andrew to take care of our students."
Now, Othman strives to recreate what she experienced at GSU — “a warm and welcoming environment” —for all students.
Though district statistics show no Arab American students attend Andrew, Othman said she estimates about 20 percent of the student body is Arab American based on absences during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays, both widely celebrated in the Muslim culture.
Outside Detroit and New York, Othman says the south suburbs of Chicago has the largest Arab-American population in the country, and it makes her proud to be part of a larger “mosaic” seen inside and outside Andrew.
“It’s what defines us —our different perspectives and experiences that we bring to one collective. And it’s beautiful.”