Long Island, New York, native Celia Ayenesazan graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology almost 30 years ago and spent more than two decades working for Federated Department Stores, Inc., one of America’s largest operators of premier retail chains including Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. But nothing brings her more joy than leading her own special education classroom. 

Celia Ayenesazan

This week, Ayenesazan walks across Georgia Southern University’s commencement stage to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), and a second chance at a fulfilling career.

At the height of her career, she sourced garments for Ann Taylor, Express and Liz Claiborne, but put her career on hold following the birth of her daughter to become a stay-at-home mom.

“I didn’t work in an office setting for eight years,” she explained. “I was away from the fast-paced fashion industry for a long time I wasn’t sure if my skill sets had become obsolete. A friend suggested that I apply for a job at the local preschool because she saw the level of engagement I had with young children. I was hesitant, but it was the best thing I ever did as it led to a new career.”

In 2016, Ayenesazan and her family moved South to metro Atlanta to join her extended family where she secured a paraprofessional position at an elementary school. 

In no time, Ayenesazan was encouraged by her peers and administrators to become certified and lead her own classroom. She chose Georgia Southern University’s fully online MAT program to become a certified teacher in special education.

“I worked as a paraprofessional in a self-contained special education classroom and ever since then I have had a connection with students with disabilities,” Ayenesazan said. “The reward of this work is immense and the impact can be seen almost every day.”

Today, Ayenesazan is in her second year at Radloff Middle School in Duluth, Georgia, a Title I school with 98% minority enrollment and 83% economically disadvantaged students.

Since joining the school, she has been awarded multiple grants and completed several DonorsChoose projects, totaling more than $55,000 in donations and grant funding to support new and innovative efforts to integrate students with disabilities into the general education population.

“Because I teach in a self-contained classroom [where students with similar disabilities are taught in one classroom], our students are often not together with the general education population,” she explained. “I want my students to gain confidence in their abilities and push them out of the nest, so to speak. Social support is so important in this process.”

That is why Ayenesazan has focused much of her grant seeking on efforts that allow students with disabilities to participate in hands-on, unique learning opportunities with students from the general population. Since Ayenesazan started at Radloff Middle, she has created an outdoor learning environment and gardening space, in addition to Tower Gardens, an aeroponic indoor growing system, to extend the learning experience by growing vegetables in the classroom, year-round. Students cultivate the vegetables and take them home to cook them. She started the first LEGO robotics team for students with disabilities that competed in a regional competition.

Multi-sensory room

Most recently, Ayenesazan received a $20,000 grant to create a new multi-sensory room that will be complete with alternative lighting, fiber optics, vibrating chairs, bubble tubes, bean bag chairs, swings and fidgeting activities.

“The multi-sensory room can provide a comfortable space for students with disabilities, to engage with peers in the general education and special education settings,” said Ayenesazan. “It will offer an alternative to a classroom space for students to socialize and collaborate. The ultimate goal is to offer all students an inclusive learning environment.”

In the near future, Ayenesazan plans to start a sewing club so students can learn basic sewing skills and create costumes for the school’s drama performances. She also coordinated with several teachers to establish the school’s first gardening club. Another passion she has is to teach students to acknowledge the power of their voice advocacy skills.

“I enjoy thinking out of the box and finding innovative ways to empower all students,” said Celia Ayenesazan. “When you love what you do, you dedicate your efforts to make a difference in the lives of all students.”