UM, Teach for America build strong partnership

Posted December 7, 2012

School of Communication
University of Miami

Each generation in America seems to have those one or two social issues that really get it fired up to make a difference.

And, while history shows us that it usually boils down to an oppressed group, the up-and-coming victim may surprise you: children.

Students benefit from the one-on-one attention given by a TFA corps member (Photos courtesy of Teach for America).

Students benefit from the one-on-one attention given by a TFA corps member (Photos courtesy of Teach for America).

During the last decade, the University of Miami has built a deep partnership with a leading non-profit organization in education reform, Teach For America.

TFA exists to close what they call the “achievement gap,” a term used to denote the disparity in student performance between socioeconomic classes.

Qualified applicants are accepted as corps members that serve low-income students for two years through teaching elementary or secondary education in school systems across the nation.

As UM has been on the rise in the new millennium, sky-rocketing to as high as 38 in the annual U.S. News and World Report college rankings while being ranked 66 in 2000, TFA has taken notice and recruitment is at an all-time high. Last year, 36 graduating seniors were accepted into the corps out of 160 graduating seniors that applied—which is well above the national acceptance rate for the 2011 corps of 11 percent.

TFA has learned to make key connections within the university setting through faculty, administration, and students. These connections can lead to applicants with a preferred skillset—one of exceptional perseverance, leadership, and problem-solving — making the decision to apply to the corps.

Frits Bigham, assistant director of Internships and Assessment at the Toppel Career Center, consistently recommends TFA as an option for students.

“A student might say, ‘I am a tutor on campus, how does that translate?’ or ‘How is my major going to relate to a career if I don’t go to grad school?’, so I’ll always mention one route to go is Teach For America,” Bigham said.

According to Universum, an employer relations branding company that works with universities, UM students rank TFA fifth for ideal employers and Education / Research Institutions is No. 2 out of the top 10 preferred industries. According to these statistics, students are definitely taking note of the presence TFA has created on campus.

“Since 2009, there has been an increase in recruiting from TFA on campus, I feel like that correlates with the University of Miami’s rankings in moving up in the top 50,” Bigham said.

Data easily back up Bigham’s claim: the top 10 universities contributing graduates to the 2012 corps are all top 60 schools when considering the USNWR rankings.

While the rising prestige of UM has seemed to parallel that of TFA, UM alumni that have joined the corps point to other reasoning for pursuing the organization, such as the rising urge to make a difference within the American education system.

“I wasn’t set on my major and I knew I wanted to do something within social justice. My heart became attached to wanting to solve a problem that is one of the biggest social issues in America,” said Miami corps member Sarah Fraser, who was graduated from UM with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 2012.

Fraser, 22, heard about the organization her sophomore year, but didn’t think much of it until a friend a grade above her applied to the corps and was accepted. As her certainty about a career within her field of study became unsure, TFA quickly became a solid option.

Students of this generation seem to be catching hold of the “movement” mentality that TFA promotes. The word “movement” is plastered all over their website and promotional material, it encourages young people to jump on board and TFA looks to take the best and brightest and give them a classroom to make a difference in.

The number of of accepted applicants to the TFA corps has risen over 700% at the University of Miami since 2006.Charlie Levinson, 23, a UM alumnus and current graduate student in UM’s Community and Social Change Program, opted out of his TFA corps final interview twice, but still sees value in what the organization is doing.

“TFA steers young people in the right direction: towards social justice and awareness, which I think this country needs more of,” Levinson said.

Miami students are taking notice of the call to action the organization is providing them with. And, in terms of recruitment, maybe the most effective strategy TFA uses is hiring undergraduates to assist in the process of spreading the word.

Campus Campaign Coordinators do the “dirty work” on campuses by creating marketing campaigns, targeting student groups, and making class presentations that encourage more qualified students to apply.

Giovanna Ibias, a senior majoring in political science and human and social development, has now worked with TFA for the past three semesters as a Campus Campaign Coordinator and held an Operations Coordinator position for The Summer Institute, TFA’s corps training program, in Tulsa, Okla., this past summer. Working with TFA has helped put her very own high school experience into perspective in regards to the achievement gap.

“In my high school, I saw the achievement gap between the AP/IB students and the regular students,” Ibias said.

Ibias points to UM as a key school among the movement because of the immense diversity on campus. As many corps members venture into low-income areas for maybe the first extended period of their lives, the thought of having a high-achieving minority corps member that can speak a different language or connect on a deeper level with students is very appealing to the organization.

And, with UM ranked No. 1 in the nation for “Race/Class Interaction” in 2010 Princeton Review, along with breaking the top 50 in the USNWR rankings the same year, the numbers all point to a gaining momentum in recruitment for TFA. And they have, as the number of acceptances into the corps at the institution has went from 25 in 2011 to 36 in 2012.

But, with how complicated the educational problems in America are, the organization has its fair share of criticisms. Some find two years to be much too short for someone to solidify their presence within a classroom, let alone a fresh college graduate that only has five weeks of lightning-fast training under their belt. Others see the program as too idealistic, and worry that many corps members come into the position with a naïve passion that can be quickly ousted.

“I’ve heard that in the Summer Institute you are with a lot of high-energy type-A personality corps members, but that support is quickly relinquished when it is just you and your students in the classroom, and that can be overwhelming,” said Levinson.

Despite criticisms, however, UM students are grabbing hold of the heart of the issue: caring for kids that might have not otherwise been cared for and building a personal character that will last a lifetime, whether that is spent within the education after your two years or not.

“You have people’s lives literally in your hands. You learn a lot about yourself and our world because of that,” said Jaclyn Schroder, a new Miami corps member that graduated with a B.A. in psychology from UM last May.

“If you don’t feel like your heart is really in it, then don’t do it, you will be miserable,” said Hilary Street, a former CCC and current Jacksonville corps member.

As UM continues to turn heads as a standout institution across the nation, leading corporations in all fields are taking note and searching for the most qualified to fill their entry level positions.

In a country so fueled by the capitalistic system, real change is found in an organization that encourages young graduates to deeply love their country in an important way, through educating the following generation to make an even greater impact.

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