Former ISS president encourages students to participate in Teach For America

By Allison Benefico

By senior year my list of collegiate activities included: Illini Union Board, sorority girl, Alternative Spring Break and president of the Illinois Student Senate. But nearing graduation, I did not know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted it to be something important. After considering several post-graduate opportunities, I ended up choosing Teach For America (TFA). I write hoping to encourage seniors grappling with similar questions about their futures to do the same.

I had no idea what to expect when I began my first day of teaching in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, less than five miles from the Mexican border. I quickly learned that teaching eighth grade reading would not be a simple task. Some of my students struggled with speaking and understanding English, let alone reading it. Though eighth graders, many of my students were reading between the third- and fifth-grade levels. I believe this was largely because of the low expectations set for my students.

To get my students caught up, I began an independent reading program in my classroom. After going to thrift stores and garage sales and searching my parents’ basement for the books I read growing up, I put together my own classroom library. Despite the warnings I received that the students wouldn’t go for it, I encouraged the students and emphasized that “practice makes perfect.” Now, not only do students come prepared with their books to reading class, but other teachers report that the students read in their classes, too.

As an eighth-grade teacher, I also had to think about my students’ futures and prepare them to succeed in high school and beyond.

This was difficult because my students do not have the luxury of dreaming about expensive colleges and interesting careers as future options. In fact many students need to drop out of high school as soon as they are old enough to get a permanent job working in the fields.

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    To inform my students about all the opportunities available to them, I designed a four-week unit about college.

    I spotlighted six well-known universities around the country, including U of I. The students read about the dorms, sports, classes, Greek life, etc. My students completed mock applications and made lists of schools they wanted to attend. Throughout the college unit I could see my students realizing that college was a real possibility for them.

    Not every day is inspiring; working with more than 100 13-year-olds can be extremely stressful. But then, experiences like the college unit remind me why I am here.

    Of course, there are also self-serving benefits to TFA. It will look great on your resume or grad school applications, especially when you explain that in 2006 TFA accepted only 12 percent of the 19,000 applicants. Oh, and did I mention you get paid? Beyond my regular paycheck, my district also offered a generous signing bonus and relocation stipend.

    And what comes after TFA? Today there are more than 12,000 TFA alumni working all around the country in various sectors, including business, public policy, law and engineering.

    Many alumni also continue in education. TFA alumni carry their teaching experiences with them and continue to fight against educational disparity through any career path they choose.

    As my two year commitment ends, I am still faced with the same problem I had as a senior: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?

    TFA has helped me gain a larger perspective on this question.

    I realize that, unlike many other young people in this country, my education has given me the blessing of having too many options. I could go to law school, do non-profit work, work for a large corporation, or anything else I wanted.

    However, I will be hard-pressed to find something half as important as my work as a TFA teacher.

    Editor’s Note: Teach for America’s final application deadline is this Sunday February 18th. For more information visit www.teachforamerica.org.