Making the decision to teach and serve

By Stephanie Newland

When I think about my time here at SMU, I think about a whirlwind of incredible experiences. But I also think about that gnawing question that always lurks: What in the world am I going to do after I leave here?

Although the question is the quickest way to get any senior’s heart pounding and palms sweating, I actually have several ways I could answer it. I could volunteer abroad or apply to graduate school. I have choices.

But the question of what I could do after graduation actually has a second part – what should I do? And as I turned each choice over in my head, none of them felt quite right.

The truth is, I lead a pretty privileged life. As overwhelmed as I feel knowing I have so many post-graduate choices, I also know I’m incredibly lucky. I worked hard to get to and through college and faced struggles along the way, but I went to a high school where kids were expected to graduate and we had plenty of extra support and resources to help us plan our next chapters. Whenever I needed support, I never had to look far. But it wasn’t just my family and teachers that encouraged me. Examples of successful people who look like me were all around, from the people I saw on campus during college visits to the majority of government leaders and actors I watched on TV. Everywhere I turned, society told me I could be successful.

I know that the same isn’t true for kids all across the country. When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to learn, laugh and grow through the college experience. Too many kids lack the opportunity to imagine a fulfilling future for themselves. For students growing up in our lowest-income communities, just 6 percent will graduate from college by the time they’re 25. This disparity in no way reflects kids’ capabilities – it’s a result of deeply entrenched systems of oppression that have denied low-income kids equal access to opportunities for decades. I know that I can play a role in changing this. More importantly, I believe I should.

I applied to Teach For America because I want to be a part of the movement to end educational inequity in this country. This past spring, I took a class called Minority Dominant Relations in which we examined the disparities between high and low-income communities in our society. The more I learned, the more convinced I became that the gap in opportunities available to well-off students and their lower-income peers is an injustice I want to address. No child’s future should be determined by the numbers in his or her zip code or parents’ paycheck.

I didn’t decide to teach because I think I’m going to be a hero. This work will be incredibly challenging and humbling, and I will have to push myself harder than I ever have to give my students the education they deserve. I will need to work in close partnership with the parents, teachers and community members who have been working toward justice and equity long before I arrived. But I don’t want a job that lets me turn a blind eye to the injustice kids face every day. I want one that forces me to look injustice in the face and fight it with all my heart. I want one that holds me accountable for the injustices that plague our communities – because, although I did not create them, I’d still bear responsibility if I chose not to address them.

When I become a Teach For America corps member after graduation, I’ll be joining a network of more than 47,000 people working relentlessly to make access to opportunity equitable. It’s a network of leaders vastly diverse in background and experience, working across sectors, all united around the fundamental belief that a quality education is not a privilege, it is a right. We can fight to ensure that all students get the chance to exercise that right. As you think about what in the world you’re going to do after you leave here, I hope you’ll consider joining us.

Stephanie Newland is a senior majoring in Spanish and Biology. She is vice president of SMU Best Buddies, a site leader for Mustang Heroes, and a volunteer for NightOwls and Jesters at Highland Park United Methodist Church.

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