AUBURN GRESHAM — Aurora Latifi grew up wanting to be an engineer in her native Albania, but the government wouldn't allow her to, so she settled on teaching.
Latifi, 49, says now she has no regrets about going into teaching, and the move turned out to be good news for students at Leo Catholic High School on the South Side, where Latifi got a job after moving to America 12 years ago.
"She is a wonderful teacher and an asset to this school," said Dan McGrath, president of Leo, an all-boys school founded in 1926. "She really cares about her students, which is why she arrives early and leaves late. Her willingness to go that extra mile for students is what makes her so effective as a good teacher."
Latifi earned a bachelor's degree in education in Albania when she learned she couldn't be an engineer.
"Everything is controlled by the government, at least that's how it was when I was there," she said. "I wanted to be an engineer, but the government decides when there is a need for another engineer. That's how I ended up becoming a math teacher while there."
In 2001, she immigrated to the United States with her husband and two sons, now ages 20 and 23. She was working at a grocery store in city in the deli department when a co-worker encouraged her to return to teaching.
"I had a co-worker whose daughter was a Chicago teacher and she helped me get certified in Illinois so I could do what I do best, and that's educate," recalled Latifi.
She began working at Leo in 2002.
"Math has always been my passion," said Latifi, who now lives in Elmwood Park. "Math is more than numbers. There's a lot of thinking involved in math, and I like to think."
Teaching geometry, algebra and pre-calculus to sophomores, juniors and seniors offers challenges, but it's also fun, she said.
"The hardest part of my job is keeping students motivated when dealing with math because it can be challenging at times," she said. "The easiest part? Well, showing up every day to work with a wonderful group of students is definitely the best part of my job."
As the moderator for the school's Math Club and National Honors Society, Latifi said she can always be found after school lets out at 2:30 p.m. helping students needing extra help.
"We have kids who came from different elementary schools and not all may have fully prepared them,'' she said. "Usually my freshmen students need extra help to get them up to speed."
She said she tries to make complicated calculations easier by "breaking down the math formulas to make it easier students to understand."
The extra help she provides has paid off for many of her students. Students she taught are now major at engineering in such schools as the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Valparaiso University.
"One student is a Bill Gates scholar at Valparaiso University for which I nominated him, which I am proud of," she said.
She hopes others follow her lead.
"I am using my college education to help others become college graduates, and I hope they in turn do as I did and help someone else reach their dream," she said.
Leo, at 7901 S. Sangamon St. in Auburn Gresham, has 150 students. The student body in recent history has been predominantly black, although this year there are 11 whites and five Hispanics enrolled, McGrath said.
Most students come from low-income households, and 95 percent receive financial aid of up to $4,000 to help pay the $7,500 annual tuition, McGrath said. Despite the challenges, the school has had a 100 percent graduation rate for the last three years.
Latifi is not worried about her safety despite the violence plaguing the community.
"When I first started working here 11 years ago, my husband thought I was crazy. But now he is OK with it," she said. "My students make sure I am safe and let me know where I can and cannot go around here."
McGrath said many students see Latifi as a second mother and are protective of her.
Every year Latifi travels to Albania to visit her family but admits each time she leaves the United States she is eager to quickly return.
"This is my home now. I love living here and wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," she said.