Christopher Contreras

In 2013, I returned to San Antonio, Texas, and the “barrios” in which I grew up. Here, the tortillas are fresh, we speak Spanglish, and natives don’t actually pronounce the second “n” in “San Antonio.”

I serve the infamous Eastside Promise. It is an area where parents warn their kids not to walk after dark, and rumors about the community entail crime, prostitution, and poverty. These are the stories I heard as a boy, and they are the stories I hear as a professional.

Cayla Calfee

Earlier this year, news surfaced that Illinois’s Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) had run out of money. This was potentially devastating news to our community and child care centers like ours, the Howard Area Family Center. We rely on three main funding sources to sustain full-day, full-year, and quality care: CCAP, Head Start, and Preschool For All. Our center’s budget, much like other programs in Illinois, relies on CCAP for over half of our budget needs.

On February 2, Illinois’s Department of Human Services, which administers CCAP, announced a delay of payment to providers across Illinois. In the next month, centers shut their doors early, closed indefinitely, and raised the co-pays of low-income families. Families, providers, and advocates across the state desperately and swiftly took action to ensure minimal impact on working and students families and children.

crayons

My journey was improbable; some might even say impossible. My parents trekked on top of trains, waded across rivers, and traversed Texas forest for seven days to make their way from Mexico to the United States.  They settled in a mobile home park in California, where my father worked as a waiter and my mother as a homemaker and nanny, making a combined $35,000 a year. I, their proud son, majored in aerospace engineering and minored in psychology at the University of Southern California. Today I am a high school physics teacher in Los Angeles and get to travel the world, from Mexico to Spain to Puerto Rico, courtesy of fellowships and extolling the power of STEM education.

My low-income, Latino, engineering background shaped my life to wonderful fruition. As we mark Engineers Week (February 22-28), I’ve been thinking about the students who share my background. How can we ensure that science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively referred to as STEM) are resources for them to shape their own destinies?

Last week a photographer from The New York Times came to my classroom in rural North Carolina. I hadn’t sought the spotlight but when my administration asked me to open my doors, I did so happily—anything to help shine a light on the huge potential and real challenges facing students in communities like ours. Then, the article landed, and there we were, on the front page, in a story that had so very little to do with our own. 

As the story's photo caption notes, I’m a first year Teach For America corps member in Warrenton, NC. But my personal story actually begins elsewhere and much longer ago, in Decatur, Georgia, growing up with my sister and a mother who raised us on her own. With all the difficulties she faced, my mom believed in the power of education and worked hard to get us to the best district she could. Seemingly constant redistricting made this particularly tough. But we had the support of our church, our community, and a few teachers who changed the future for our family forever.

luke glaser

After spending my entire life in a city, I became a rural educator. Aesthetically, my urban hometown and new rural home seem worlds apart. Main Street in Louisville, my hometown, is crossed daily by thousands of pedestrians and drivers, while Main Street in Hazard, Kentucky, where I teach, hosts only the occasional pedestrian strolling past its local businesses, banks, and churches. Now in my second year teaching math at Hazard High School, I’ve learned urban and rural main streets share much more than a name. 

Let’s be honest: a rural young professional is not what mainstream culture considers traditional (or cool). There are no high rise lofts or Uber drivers, and few late-night venues stay open past midnight. Yet, for what could be perceived as a less-than-glamorous way to spend one’s twenties, I embrace and love the experiences I have had in my city of 4,500.

It’s Friday afternoon, and students are flooding past me in joyous celebration of their upcoming vacation. It had been a torturous Friday of all Fridays (aren’t they all?), and I was ready to partake in some celebrations of my own with my colleagues when I ran across one of the students who had helped make my Friday particularly wearing. I was expecting nothing short of a cold shoulder when she passed by, but was both surprised and relieved when she stopped dead center in front of me to ask a question I have heard too many times this school year.

“Ms. Escobar, why don’t you like me anymore?” she asked.

Far from astounded, I knew I had heard her correctly, and she stared, waiting for my response. “We used to be friends,” she said. “And now you’re treating me differently. You’re not the same.” I responded like I have to almost all of the students who have confronted me with similar arguments this year, and I said, “Shani, I haven’t changed. I’m holding you to the same standards as everyone else, and you don’t want to hop on board.”

Nemer Tello

A 2015 TFA corps member, Nemer Tello will begin teaching in Dallas-Fort Worth in fall 2015.

This May, I will complete my dual bachelor's degree in Spanish and global politics. However, the odds were against me to achieve this degree in four years. As a first-generation immigrant with a low socioeconomic status and an agricultural background, it was unlikely that I would even graduate from high school.

I share Teach For America’s vision of schools in which classrooms are led by high-quality, versed, and committed teachers. I want to be a corps member because I feel responsible and passionate about helping close the gap in quality of education between privileged and disadvantaged students. My parents waited ten years for our family to come to the States so their children could pursue the careers of their dreams. My dream is to dedicate my knowledge and experience to students who need it the most.

I currently work 30 hours every week, take 19 credits as a senior in college, lead a group of ambassadors in my college as their elected president, and volunteer. When I visit my parents, I feel a deep appreciation because my 55-year-old father, who works 14 hours/day, is so generous. Many children do not have the fortune to have parents who are as supportive or involved; many don’t have figures in their lives who foster that potential to dream, work hard, and achieve their goals.

A 2015 TFA corps member, Peter Simonse is currently vice president and treasurer of Land O’Lakes Inc., and will be leaving the company this year to teach high school physics in the Twin Cities.

When I graduated from college, I established three life goals: First, I wanted to marry and raise a family. Second, I wanted to have a rewarding career at companies that positively contribute to society. And third, I wanted to give something back to the community.

At this stage in my life, I am happy with the success I have made with respect to the first two goals. I've had a successful marriage and our four children are happy, healthy, and independent now. I have enjoyed and excelled in my career as a business professional. Yet I am still not satisfied with the progress on my third life goal.

A 2015 TFA corps member, Jacob Burdette will begin teaching secondary math in Eastern Kentucky in fall 2015.

Growing up in an economically-distressed Appalachian community, I did not have access to many of the resources that were readily available to my affluent counterparts across the country. There were no computers in my elementary and middle schools, no pre-professional programs in my high school, and there was little belief in my community that my classmates and I would have a successful future.

Despite all of the barriers I faced, there was one person who never stopped believing in me and who, in turn, helped me believe in myself. That person, to whom I owe an incalculable debt, is Benu Nanda, my high school chemistry teacher. Benu consistently treated me with respect and pushed me to better myself. 

When I think about why I want to Teach For America, I'm reminded of a conversation Benu and I had when I was struggling in chemistry. She pulled me aside after class and told me that I could do so much better than I was doing. I responded that I did not have the resources I needed in order to improve. Benu looked me in the eye and said, "Someone will always have more money than you, more access to technology, to resources; none of that means you should give up.”

Pass the Chalk

 

As a middle schooler at KIPP DC KEY Academy, Nathan Woods admits he “wasn’t always the ideal student.” But his teachers stood by him through thick and thin. Even after Nathan moved on to high school, his KIPP teachers continued to have a major presence in his life, attending his sports games and providing emotional support during times of family tragedy.

“I had planned to go to law school, but in thinking about all the sacrifices, and the unwavering support my teachers and my family have provided me, I made the decision to pay it forward,” Nathan writes. “I decided to become a teacher.”

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