It was late January 2004 when then 18-year-old Youssef Francis received news that his green card was ready, and he and his family could immigrate from Beirut, Lebanon to America. Described as one of the happiest moments in his life, Francis knew that better opportunities were ahead for him and his family. He said he faced countless hardships in Lebanon and describes the politics, job opportunities and economics as “a nightmare” and the country itself had just come out of one of many civil wars. Jobs in the country were scarce, and employment for Francis’ parents did not look great.
“I loved coming to America because of all the opportunities it represented,” recalls Francis on his journey to the United States. “I was so happy, the happiest in my life. It was like a dream come true.”
While Francis is now a passionate and popular tenured math professor at Southwestern College, he never would have pictured himself to be where he is now when he first started as a Southwestern College student about a decade ago.
Francis was a little unsure of how to start his new life in America. His uncle, also from Lebanon, suggested that Francis start taking classes at Southwestern College since he could get a ride from his cousins who also attended. He started out taking English as Second Language classes and a few other basic courses.
He recalls the sense of shock when he did not find buildings made of solid gold or silver paved streets since he had only been exposed to American culture through movies. Also to his surprise, he learned that Southwestern College was a community college, not a university. In Lebanon, there are no community colleges and the public universities are often overcrowded, but Francis always knew the importance of higher education.
“In Lebanon, you are nothing without higher education,” he said.
As Francis experienced firsthand, the teachers in Lebanon were not always the most encouraging when it came to learning. Francis recalls one middle school teacher, who did more damage than good to his students: a retired war general, who went from commanding an army to commanding a public school classroom. This teacher would often mock and physically punish students who gave wrong answers in math class, usually by hitting them with rulers, slapping them and pulling at their ears.
“It wasn’t exactly what you would call a positive learning environment,” Francis said.
This experience made Francis shy away from math until his knack for the subject was sparked in high school when he and a friend would often make form study groups for homework.
In 2005, when Francis was a student at Southwestern College, he got a job as a tutor in the Math Center. He quickly became known for his patience and talent for making sense of difficult math problems, and the students he tutored were not the only ones excelling as a result of his new position.
“I was a different person before working in the Math Center,” Francis said. “I was super shy, no confidence and the job helped practice my English. The job also helped me come out of my shell and build confidence. I felt really good about helping others understand math, and I felt that it was my calling.”
Francis whole-heartedly believes that if he hadn’t worked as a campus tutor, he probably wouldn’t have ended up as a professor at Southwestern College. He had always found joy in helping those who struggle with math and believes that joy is what pointed him in the direction of teaching.
“There is so much diversity among the students and faculty, and the bilingual aspect of the college reminds me of when I was student learning English myself,” Francis said. “This is definitely somewhere I see myself teaching for 20 to 30 years.”
After earning his degree at Southwestern College, Francis continued his higher education career at San Diego State University. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics and taught as a teacher’s assistant at SDSU for a few semesters.
The first class Francis ever taught at Southwestern College was in the spring of 2013 and he found himself teaching in the same classrooms he sat in as a student.
“It was such a cool and exciting feeling to be back in my old classrooms, but now as the professor,” says Francis. “Some of my former teachers are now my coworkers.”
Today, Francis can be found teaching a broad range of math courses inside the new state-of-art Math and Science Building, enthusiastically tutoring students in his office and helping out with events for the Math and Science Club.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be where I am today.”