By Peter Rooney
Two Amherst College students who founded The EDU to harness the growing passion among students for teaching and education are on a mission to increase appreciation and respect for teachers while tackling some of the inadequacies of the nation’s educational system.
Since they co-founded the group last spring, Daniel Alter ’13 and Daniela Fragoso ’13 have organized an education career fair, a screening of the education-themed documentary Waiting for Superman and a lecture this fall by noted author Jonathan Kozol that filled Johnson Chapel. They also were instrumental in advocating for a new program at the college that will provide career counseling to the increasing number of students who are interested in careers in education after graduation.
That program, called Amherst Careers in Education Professions, has the financial support of Charles “Chuck” Ashby Lewis ’64 and his wife, Penny Bender Sebring, Ph.D, who describe it as “a selective and comprehensive program to help Amherst students determine whether they want to pursue a professional career in education.” Ben Guest ’97, a former teacher, Peace Corps volunteer and manager with the Mississippi Teacher Corps, will head the program beginning Jan. 2, 2013.
Alter grew up in suburban Chicago and attended New Trier, a “very strong” public high school. Fragoso, from Houston, Texas, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who instilled in her the importance of education. The two became friends when they met during a course called Reading, Writing and Teaching, which involved tutoring students in the Holyoke school district. After noticing that they and many other students shared a passion for education, they decided forming a student organization was a good way to harness that positive energy.
“We have an opportunity here to change the way that an elite liberal arts institution looks at education and thinks about careers in education, and that could really have an impact across the country if we do it right,” Alter said. “It means providing more opportunities as an undergraduate, supporting growth, providing resources about different paths to go into different careers in education.”
Student enthusiasm for education, not only as a profession but also as a cause, has not gone unnoticed on campus.
“Public education and the achievement gap is always the top issue that students cite when we survey them about social justice concerns,” said Molly Mead, director of the college’s Center for Community Engagement. “Our student body is committed to seeing a world in which a high-quality public education is available to everybody. I really think a high quality public education for everybody is the social justice issue for this generation.”
Mead said education may resonate so strongly with students in part because of the increased diversity of the student body. Many students, she noted, come from public high schools and have benefited from enrichment opportunities such as tutoring, summer programming and Questbridge, which connects bright low-income students to America's best universities and opportunities. And, those students who attended top high schools are exposed to those who didn’t when they come to Amherst.
“As more elite colleges and universities such as Amherst have done a better job diversifying their student bodies, I have to believe that has led to a greater appreciation and awareness of the role of public education,” Mead said. “Most of them would say it was not an accident that led them to Amherst.”
In addition to the founding of The EDU and the new education careers advisor position, Mead and Ursula Olender, direcor of career services, at Amherst, cited other recent developments as evidence of education’s prominence on campus.
“When we look at the first job that the most Amherst students go into after graduation, it’s education,” Olender said. “The number one category of summer internships is education, our surveys of professional interest consistently cite education as a top career choice, and education is the most popular category of non-profit summer internships.”
Also, interest among students in tutoring has grown so much (about 60 students are currently volunteering in area schools) that the college is helping fund a volunteer coordinator position in the Amherst public schools to work with volunteers from throughout the area.
Another indicator of education’s prominent role on campus is Teach For America’s growing popularity as a destination for Amherst graduates. In its recent fifth annual ranking of the schools contributing the greatest number of graduating seniors to its teaching corps, Amherst College rose to second place among 20 small colleges and universities, from 15th place in 2008, to 4th place last year (view the full list here).
Current Amherst students who find themselves drawn to education are following a passion that many other alums share as well, and a profession that is honored at the college. Amherst’s teaching alumni are recognized each year through the Class of 1954 Commitment to Teaching Fellowships (for a list of recent honorees, go here), awarded to Amherst alumni who have been teaching for ten years or less. And, the Swift Moore Teaching Awards are given during each Commencement to a select group of inspirational and influential teachers, as nominated by graduating seniors (see last year’s winners here).
Despite the enthusiasm for teaching and education that comes from many quarters, Alter and Fragoso say they sense teaching still faces a stigma of being a somehow unworthy profession for an Amherst alumnus.
“There are a few people who know they want to go into teaching and are sort of ashamed of it,” Alter said. “There’s not necessarily support from their parents or friends or professors, because they feel like they’ve been granted so much by an Amherst education, and just being a teacher, is that throwing it all away?”
Alter said he wants to change that thinking, at Amherst and elsewhere.
“We really want to work to professionalize teaching and education careers,” he said. “Not just honoring them because they are good people and fighting the good fight, but really dramatically changing the way that Amherst students, staff, faculty, families across the country view teachers so that it’s something on par with medical professions and lawyers and has the same prestige as careers in business and finance.”
While Alter is not yet sure whether his post-graduation plans will entail teaching, public policy work or something else altogether, Fragoso said she has no doubt.
“I definitely want to be a teacher,” she said. “I feel sometimes that students go into teaching as a backup plan senior year, but for me it's intentional. It's not like a ‘two-year, teach for a while.’ It's not like a ‘see-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life.’ I want to be an informed teacher who knows about reform and other policy issues surrounding my personal experience in the classroom. I’m a teacher, all the way.”