Nisha Phillip-Malahoo, a Noyce Fellow, says the reward she feels from being a teacher empowers her every day.

BY NATALIE FEDOR | May 2, 2024

Nisha Phillip-Malahoo with UCF President Alexander Cartwright and Provost Michael Johnson

Despite being told growing up that she would never make it as an academic and educator, doctoral candidate Nisha Phillip-Malahoo ’21MEd put in the rigorous work to make it there anyway.

Now, she’s received the highest student honor at UCF — recently named to the Order of Pegasus — and says it wouldn’t have been possible without the children that inspire her every day.

A dedicated teacher for more than 10 years, Malahoo has always strived to put the children she teaches at the forefront.

“I am very passionate about enriching the lives of my students,” Malahoo says. “I teach at a Title One school, and it's in an underserved community with great learning needs. So, I felt that the education that I would get through UCF would empower me with the expertise that I need to then address those needs. That was my main reason — how can I reach my kids?”

Her involvement in the National Science Foundation Noyce Track 3 Project helped her do just that by providing her with a supportive community for Orange County Public School K-8 mathematics teachers pursuing doctoral degrees.

The Noyce program aims to empower fellows by increasing their knowledge, expanding their leadership capacity, and increasing teacher diversity in STEM fields. By the end of the program, each Noyce Fellow will have earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in K-8 mathematics education.

“The Noyce program was so amazing. It was single-handedly the best program I've ever been through,” she says. “It empowered me to be the best educator I can be. It is a community of learners who are deeply invested and celebrate and support each other.”

She says the community the program cultivated was what truly made it a great experience — one she strives to replicate in her classroom.

“Our professors didn't only see us as a student needing to do an activity to get a grade, our professors saw us as humans,” Malahoo says. “I felt like they developed a holistic version of us. I took that experience to bring it back to my kids. I changed who I was as a teacher to model what I saw.”

Growing up, Malahoo faced some of the struggles that she now sees in her students.

“I grew up in Trinidad, and as a young student, I was told by an educator that I would never succeed in math,’” she says.

She internalized that for a long time, feeling like she was not a good student.

“It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I realized I needed to be updated with what's going on in education because I couldn't serve my child if I lacked the knowledge,” Malahoo says. “So, with a whole lot of anxiety, I signed back up for school — still believing I'm not a good student, but willing to put myself out there because now I had a child that I was accountable for. That's how I got into education.”

Going from being dismissed as a child to being considered for and ultimately getting selected for Order of Pegasus was a gratifying experience. It inspires her to continue to work hard for the children whose lives she impacts every day.

“It felt good to be recognized,” Malahoo says. “Whatever I do, I know that I have 1,000 little eyes on me, and I have to be that leader. The same level of honor and love that I felt receiving this, I want to turn around and use to bless the people behind me.”

Knowing that she just needed to change how she was looking at the content to truly understand it has helped inform the activities she brings to her elementary students. That includes baking with her students to teach them about measurement, hosting a “Cultural Day” that gives students the chance to celebrate and learn about the different cultures in their community, among other activities all designed to help her students enjoy learning.

“It's because of what I learned that I was able to make my classroom a thriving community where kids will engage with the math,” she says.

After graduation, Malahoo says she will continue doing the work she loves with her elementary students. She plans to use what she has learned at UCF to help address learning needs, create opportunities for her students and continue to make an impact where she is right now.

"When I look at my children and the impact that I can see every day, that inspires me — coming into work and seeing that my kids are grasping what I'm teaching,” she says. “That fills my heart and motivates me, seeing the immediate impact of what I am doing in front of me. There's no greater reward.”