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Teach for America Touches the Lives of Sanford Graduates

Teach for America (TFA) is a nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to "enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation’s most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence." Three recent Sanford graduates: Nate Reynolds '14, Frederick "Freddy" Ryle '16, and Alexandra Somerville '16 have all interacted with TFA in some capacity. Their stories and level of participation vary, but they share a common desire to share their talents and leadership skills to further educational opportunities for under-served populations.
Nate, who is finishing his first year of law school at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Virginia, graduated a year early from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He decided that he needed to spend some time doing other work before committing to the demands of three years in law school. He elaborated: "I felt like I was on track for my life. Since middle school, I knew I wanted to go to law school. At some point, I looked around and realized that I did not want to just be on a treadmill. I wanted to get off of it and get outside of my plan in order to gain a different perspective. TFA provided me with the opportunity to accept different and unexpected challenges and still not derail my plans to attend law school."

The application process for TFA is rigorous, and the acceptance rate hovers around 15%. Candidates who make it past the initial application process are required to teach a mock lesson. Nate shared: "I found this to be very interesting. The president of F&M, who assisted us through the phases of the TFA application, told us to make sure we overly prepared for our lesson. I chose to teach how to identify the parts of speech. I used a tri-fold poster and, while the lesson was simple, it was over the top and got the job done. Next came the interview, but, once again, I had been well-prepared for that. Once I was selected, the stress of all that I had been through to be chosen paled in comparison to how hard the actual job of teaching actually was. Teaching made the interview, the mock lesson, and the training, which were all hard, seem easy."

Nate was assigned to an inner-city school in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he spent two years teaching seventh-grade mathematics. Nate shared: "Some days were so great that I felt happy, successful, and fulfilled. Other days were so hard that I felt defeated and found it almost impossible to go back to work to the next day. I worked so hard, as did the other teachers in my region, and the first 2 to 3 months were a blur. I woke up early, taught all day, and stayed up late to prep for the next day. TFA forced me into a situation that was completely new, and for the first time in my life, I experienced failure. I knew I had to find ways to do better for my students, and I was able to accomplish that. I vividly remember when one of my students said that my classroom was a safe place for him. I also worked outside of the classroom as a middle and high school wrestling coach, and I was able to forge relationships with students that helped them see a road to success. I learned that all kids will be good kids if they are just given the opportunity."

When Alexandra begins her work with students, she, too, hopes to create a positive, inclusive classroom environment and act as a consistent, positive presence in students’ lives. She is currently completing the complicated assignment process and hopes to teach English to students in grades 7–12. If no vacancies are open for that path, Alexandra's secondary path is general middle school education for grades 5–9. "If I am lucky enough to get my first choice and teach English," said Alexandra, "I want to help students understand grammar, so they communicate their own feelings and ideas as effectively as possible. I also hope to spark their interest in reading and develop their personal literary taste."

Alexandra will soon graduate from Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois with dual majors in sociology and English. She was led to TFA because of her summer work as a camp counselor during high school and college. "I love working with kids, and while the camp setting is different from a school classroom, it gave me the idea that teaching might bring me fulfillment and joy. At Northwestern, I am in the Peer Health Exchange Club and teach ninth graders in a Chicago high school a weekly health class. I love learning from the students and communicating information that I think is important. This led me to accept a friend’s recommendation that I consider applying to TFA.

“Northwestern has a competitive, dramatic culture surrounding hiring upon graduation. While the TFA application and interview process is strenuous, it was not daunting. I was able to keep the requirements in perspective and moved through the steps one at a time. I was pleased to receive my offer, and I am looking forward to receiving my assignment," continued Alexandra.
TFA seeks candidates who have demonstrated leadership. As president of her sorority, a teacher with the Peer Health Exchange, a member of the Dance Marathon club, and a part of the Sherman Ave. satirical campus newspaper, Alexandra has experience in planning large events and collaborating and communicating with others at the local and national level to implement them.
Additionally, the TFA website states that they value candidates who have faced challenges or adversity and overcome them. Alexandra shared: "I have had my share of personal struggles as I have grown up. I know that young people face anxiety, personal relationship issues, existential crises, uncertainties in finding purpose, and I know the value of relying on family, friends, and professionals—including teachers—in helping to cope with them. I want to be someone students can count on for empathy, honesty, understanding, and commitment. I am very excited for my TFA adventure to begin!"

Unlike Alexandra, Freddy is not waiting to learn his TFA assignment, as he made the difficult decision to decline their offer to join the corps. As he awaits graduation this spring from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Freddy is considering a variety of "next step" options. "I am not 100% sure of where I am going to end up yet. Like many of my peers, I find this time of extreme transition and uncertainty to be stressful. I am surrounded by supportive family and friends, and I am maintaining an appreciative mindset while I work to figure everything out."

A sociology major, Freddy accepted many leadership positions during his tenure at GW. He shared: "I had the opportunity to intern at the U.S. Department of Education during the spring semester of my sophomore year. I worked for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (WHIEEAA). Many of the senior staffers in my department encouraged me to consider teaching. There is obviously a need for black male teachers in K–12 education, as we currently make up less than three percent of all educators in this country. These conversations led me to consider TFA, and I especially like how they value leadership. As the president of GW’s Black Student Union and the vice president of the Black Men’s Initiative on campus, I became a prominent student leader at the college. The TFA campus ambassadors consistently recruited me.

“The interview process was the most rigorous I had ever experienced. Having attended five different schools with a variety of demographics, I have developed strong social skills that served me well in the both the group and individual interviews. I taught a mock lesson on poetry, and I started to form a vision of me teaching English in a middle or high school and continuing to be a role model for kids who look like me. By the time I was offered a position in TFA, I had completed interviews with Columbia and UC Berkeley for admissions jobs, and I had applied for some assistant positions at several law firms. I even applied to be a flight attendant. As I juggle with all the options before me, I decided to take TFA off the table. I am grateful for the experience and the vote of confidence they put in me with their job offer," concluded Freddy.

Nate, Alexandra, and Freddy all exemplify the "ideal" TFA candidate—intelligent, college-educated citizens with a deep belief in the potential of all children. They have the organizational, leadership, and interpersonal skills required by the organization. Each of these Sanford stars has demonstrated a respect for diversity and the ability to set and achieve goals. Additionally, each of these rising stars has recognized the powerful impact an educator can make on the lives of his/her students and the urgent need to ensure that all children have that type of teacher to count on.

Nate captured this spirit when he said: "I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to teach and serve the community of Indianapolis. While I personally grew as a member of the TFA corps, I also worked very hard on behalf of my students. It was rewarding to see them respond to my efforts and improve, not only academically, but in their interpersonal relationships and understanding of life outside of their school. Sanford students have a long history of community service. I encourage them to take a close look at TFA as an option to consider after graduating from college. They have the power to make a positive difference in the lives of students who really need support."

We wish Nate well with his continued studies and congratulate him for maintaining contact with some of his students in Indianapolis, a testament of his positive influence. We hope that Alexandra, like Nate, enjoys much success with her students this fall, and we will check back to learn more about her assignment. We await word from Freddy on where he lands, confident that wherever he goes, he will continue to make an impact on the lives of others. Teach for America only affirmed what the Sanford community already knew—these three young people are destined to make a positive and powerful difference in the world as they enter the next phase of their lives.

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