AUGUSTA — Thessaloniki, Greece, and Augusta, Maine, are very different places separated by more than 4,000 miles, but a Cony High School teacher selected for a prestigious Fulbright program hopes to bring back universal lessons that can work here.

The program will take Karina Escajeda to Greece for a semester of learning how that country integrates its refugees into classrooms. She sees many similarities between the two locations when viewed through the eyes of a refugee escaping trauma.

Both areas, according to Escajeda, an English language learner teacher for Augusta schools, are populated overwhelmingly by residents who only speak one language and are largely from a homogeneous culture. They don’t have a lot of money available, and they have an increasing number of refugees and immigrants who don’t speak English moving to them who have encountered some resistance to their arrival from factions of their populations. They also are adapting to change with the influx of new residents from other cultures.

Escajeda will visit Greece next year from January to June to learn how that country, which has had a large influx of refugees, is integrating them into its educational system.

Escajeda plans to speak to immigrant families there, as well as teachers and school administrators and others, and will be in residence at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, where Greek teachers are given the skills to create inclusive communities for their growing populations of refugee students.

She plans to take what she learns on the grant-funded trip and share it not only with her fellow Augusta teachers, but also with teachers statewide, by creating a free series of digital videos and other materials that will set out, especially for teachers in smaller schools where they otherwise might not have access to such training, how to adjust their teaching so refugee students don’t just learn how to speak and write English, but also feel included in their schools and community.

“My hope is what I do can somehow be useful to the state of Maine. The intent of Fulbright is what you create becomes fully available to others to use,” Escajeda said.

Escajeda, a board member of Capital Area New Mainers, a local nonprofit organization formed to assist refugees and immigrants as they adapt to life here, said Augusta has done a good job welcoming refugees, but it still can be hard for them to adapt to their new lives, especially for those who went through war and other trauma to end up in a strange land where they don’t know the culture or language, and they may feel ostracized.

“In Augusta we do a good job welcoming new Mainers but it takes a long time to become part of the community in Maine, and it’s lonely,” she said.

Kim Silsby, principal of Cony, said Escajeda is involved in her students’ lives well beyond her role as a teacher.

She said Escajeda is passionate about learning about diverse cultures and dedicated to teaching  students who are English language learners.

“She’s passionate. She’s enthusiastic,” Silsby said. “When she teaches something, she brings it alive for her students.”

Escajeda, 43, whose grandparents came to America from Mexico, is a Cony alumna herself. She said she was the only Latina student at Cony, from which she graduated in 1993.

She left a teaching position at Kents Hill School, where her husband, Pete Hodgin, still teaches and where they share a residence on the campus, when she learned an English language learners teaching position was open at her alma mater in Augusta. She’s been at Cony for two years and has been teaching for 18 years.

Chris Myers Asch, executive director of Capital Area New Mainers, said Escajeda absolutely deserves the Fulbright award and grant and that her studying in Greece, to see what is and what isn’t, working there, is a great idea because the lessons she learns there can be applied here.

“Karina is a passionate and committed educator and she is devoted to her students,” he said. “Her students love her and she is an active advocate for them both in and out of the classroom.”

Silsby said officials aren’t yet sure how they’ll fill Escajeda’s teaching position while she’s gone from January to June of 2020, but said they will likely either hire a long-term substitute or spread her students among other teachers.

She said Augusta schools would benefit from Escajeda’s trip by its staff learning what she learns in Greece about integrating refugees into schools there.

“The expectation is she’ll share that knowledge with our community,” Silsby said. “We’ve had an increase in our English language learners here, so it really fits with our district. I’m thrilled for Karina, for our schools and our community. It’s a prestigious honor. She’s one of only 25 (Americans) selected.”

Escajeda, who requested and was granted an unpaid leave from Augusta schools for the trip, will receive a stipend from the Fulbright Program to cover her expenses.

The Fulbright Program is an international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and designed to build relations between people of the United States and the people of other countries to solve global challenges. Escajeda was awarded the grant for the trip through Fulbright’s Distinguished Award in Teaching program.

Escajeda is also expected to be an ambassador of goodwill on her trip. She expects to share what she’s learned about helping immigrants get settled in Augusta with her peers in Greece, and will hold lectures for teachers and other groups during her stay.

Escajeda said her students are Iraqi and Syrian. She said Cony has about 70 middle and high school students for whom English is not their first language.

Her trip to Greece isn’t her only upcoming educational trip meant to help her reach her students.

She’s also going to Egypt this summer to learn Arabic at the Dahab School of Arabic Language, on a trip funded by a grant from Fund for Teachers.

She already speaks Spanish, having learned it when she taught scuba diving for a year in Honduras; a little French; and some Japanese she learned while teaching English in that country from 2005 to 2008.

She does not speak Greek, though she hopes to spend some time this summer and fall working on at least becoming conversational in Greek.