When 12-year-old Sophia Aimen Sexton lived in Pakistan as a refugee after fleeing Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War, she watched a lot of Clint Eastwood movies. “I thought when we arrived in America, they would give me a horse and I’d be a cowgirl in the desert,” recalls Sexton.
The reality was much different. In 1983, when Sexton’s family was resettled in Alexandria, VA, 11 people lived a roach-infested, two-bedroom apartment. Still, Sexton persevered. At 13, she volunteered at a nursing home, where the residents patiently taught her English words. At 14, to help her family, she began working at Burlington Coat Factory. However, in high school, the pressures of poverty and her struggle to acclimate sent Sexton into a deep depression. Her mother advised her to put her feelings on paper, sparking within Sexton a love of literacy and a desire to succeed.
“I was a survivor,” she says. “I had escaped a war and overcame so much violence just to make it to America.”
I was a survivor. I had escaped a war and overcame so much violence just to make it to America.”
After high school, Sexton worked three jobs as a fitness coach and manager, volunteered at Alexandria Hospital in the Occupational Therapy Department, served as a victim’s advocate with Citizens Against Sexual Assault, and earned a Black Belt in Taekwondo. She also attended college in secret, studying on the kitchen floor with a flashlight as everyone else slept.
Eventually, she transferred from Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) to James Madison University, where she earned dual bachelor’s degrees in Speech and Language Pathology and Psychology. In 2003, she received her master’s degree from Virginia Tech in Curriculum and Instruction. In 2015, she obtained her post-graduate certificate in Professional Writing and Rhetoric from George Mason University.
Spurred by her own struggle to learn English, Sexton has spent her career empowering others. She has been a speech and language pathologist, reading specialist, literacy coach, and now an Associate Professor of English and student adviser at NVCC.
“When you go through hardships like I did, you have two choices: Let it destroy you, or let it uplift and motivate you,” Sexton says. “Today, I want to be that person for my students who I needed when I was their age.”