For Hannah Bear, a classroom was always a place of possibilities.
Bear, who graduated from Roanoke College on Saturday, connected with education from an early age as a world where she could discover, learn, stretch and aim for new things.
“I was very lucky,” said Bear, 21. “In almost every aspect of my education, I felt included in the classroom. I always felt I had a place there. I always felt my voice mattered.
“I didn’t realize how integral that was for me until I started hearing the stories of people who didn’t have that and how powerfully it affected them.”
Bear, who is from Mechanicsville, Md., is headed in the fall to the University of Virginia, where she’ll pursue a master’s degree in education with a dual licensure in elementary and special education.
On the Roanoke College campus, where she studied communication and sociology, she was the founding chapter leader of an initiative designed to empower and inspire young students who have learning disabilities.
Eye to Eye, a national movement started by students at Brown University, pairs kids with college students who have been similarly labeled and who work with them as mentors. As a college student with autism, Bear helped establish a local chapter of the program during her sophomore year.
“We get such a unique opportunity to reach every single student who’s in the program and individually address each of them — get to know them and support them and be friends they can reach out to,” Bear said.
The local mentors make weekly visits to West Salem Elementary School, where they work with fourth- and fifth-graders on projects designed to allow them to think creatively and strengthen key life skills.
For Bear, working with the students and seeing them grow crystallized her calling to education.
“I started realizing that this was the thing I looked forward to most every week,” she said. “This was what I was most passionate about.”
Bear, an honors student and a 2016 Fulbright summer scholar, didn’t start college with her mind set on a career in education.
But her passion for teaching was evident. She had an innate ability to tie together complex ideas and distill them in a way that connected with other students.
“That’s a remarkable talent for any teacher, much less a freshman in college,” said Shannon Anderson, a sociology professor with whom Bear has worked every year since she came to Roanoke College.
Anderson, inspired by autism diagnoses within her own family, has been organizing a research agenda exploring the sociology of autism and created a class on the subject.
Bear, who helped Anderson start crafting the program, assisted her in an effort to interview people with autism and offered up her own insights that Anderson said deepened her understanding of autism.
One central point that Bear has championed in all of her work is the importance of approaching people with respect and a belief in their abilities.
“She would say always assume competence,” Anderson said. “If you’re not seeing it, maybe it’s because you haven’t figured out the right way to connect with that person yet.”
“That’s a really, really powerful idea to carry with you every day.”
As she considers her future, Bear is leaning toward teaching in mainstream classrooms, where she would work to make schools more inclusive and supportive for students of all backgrounds.
“If you can ignite a passion for education in someone, it can really stay with them,” she said. “If I can be one of those people, those people who I needed, that’s what I want to do.”