campus news

Teaching a passion for UB Fulbright recipient

Leah Cabarga.

Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published June 21, 2024

“Now, I am able to be the teacher for others that I wish I had when I was growing up. ”
Leah Cabarga, UB alumna and Fulbright recipient

Many students’ higher education success stories start with a role model inspiring them to greatness.

Leah Cabarga, one of UB’s recent Fulbright winners, is the opposite. Cabarga felt “like a shadow” during middle school and high school. So her formative moments are nothing less than finding her heart’s passion by overcoming that isolation and becoming the teacher-mentor she never had.

“My teachers’ eyes would pass over me and linger just long enough to acknowledge that I was not invisible, but not long enough to ever make me feel like a person either,” Cabarga wrote in her Fulbright application while explaining how becoming a teacher who changes students’ lives has become her abiding passion.

“My grades were above average. I did not cause any problems. I was quiet. And I seemed fine on the outside. Thus, very few teachers really took the extra steps to truly get to know me. Although I was shy and seemingly content, I still craved connections, extra support and comfort of a safe space in school.”

The disconnect continued. Cabarga began her college career studying occupational therapy after several high school teachers told her directly that she would “regret” pursuing a teaching degree.

“I listened to them at first,” says Cabarga. “However, after my first semester at college, I realized the excitement, passion and enthusiasm were all missing for me in the health care field. I missed English, and craved reading and writing.”

So Cabarga made the pivot that led to her greatest achievement. She changed majors, graduating from UB — in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in English and in 2024 with a master’s degree in education. This fall, she will travel to Montenegro on a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship, where she will teach academic writing and conversation classes to English majors at the University of Montenegro. A native of Hamburg, she plans to return to teach grades 5-12 in Buffalo when her Fulbright ends.

The intellect and drive to change the world common to so many Fulbright winners comes in a purely human way for Cabarga. She says she was born to be a teacher. It is her highest calling, and she is driven to be the best she can be.

“Going against the advice from others and knowing that I was entering a challenging, undervalued and stigmatized field, I needed to follow my heart,” Cabarga says. “Therefore, I chose English and decided to take some education courses as well to see if I enjoyed them.

“Unsurprisingly, I ended up falling in love with both. Working with students on their writing, tutoring, substitute teaching and now student teaching have solidified that while teaching is a complex, difficult and strenuous field, I genuinely could not picture myself doing anything else.

“These feelings of insignificance were disheartening in high school, but consequently, they were also the compass that pointed me toward a career in teaching. They ignited a passion in me to work toward becoming the teacher that I needed in high school for others.”

Learn and unlearn

Kathleen Reeb, visiting instructor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy who worked with Cabarga in a sociology of education course, called working with her a “true delight.”

“When you teach classes like the ones I do, students who grow up in communities like the one Leah grew up in sometimes struggle to learn from other communities in authentic ways,” says Reeb.

“Leah is not that person. She acknowledged the relative advantage she was born into and worked to learn whatever she could from whomever would teach her. She listened. She questioned. She maintained the ‘gray space’ I require from students in my classes. She understands what she knows but realizes there is always more to learn and unlearn.

“She wants to be a better teacher and human every day she wakes up,” Reeb says. “I challenged her to put herself in different situations where she could learn authentically from different groups of people. It seems her personal and professional journey has led her to the Fulbright. I love this for her.”

Tangible connections

Cabarga has now experienced firsthand a taste of that teacher-student connection she longed for. Her best moments came while student teaching in an English classroom at Amherst High School, where she was able to watch students grow over the school year. She also worked in UB’s Center for Excellence in Writing and tutored as a “Homework Helper” in the Buffalo Public Schools.

“I have come to the realization that I did not go into teaching for me, but I went into it for the students and the connections I am able to make with them,” Cabarga says. “I believe the Fulbright committee was able to feel my passion toward connecting with others, learning every day and aiming to grow as both an educator and human.

“Now, I am able to be the teacher for others that I wish I had when I was growing up.”