What Can Your Corps Network Do for the World?
The corps experience creates powerful bonds. That network keeps on giving post-corps.
The 2016 corps is the 27th to be inducted into alumnihood. That first group of corps members knew they had been through a bonding experience, but did they know how fundamentally the relationships they’d built during the corps would shape their lives and careers? Or that decades on, the connections would not just endure but multiply?
To mark the 2018 induction of the 2016 corps, we reached back in five-year intervals to ask veterans of previous corps: How have you felt the force of these relationships in your life?
Aaron Martin (S. Louisiana)
Vice President of Human Resources, BB&T Bank, Raleigh, N.C.
“We were a very early, very small corps in Baton Rouge. We truly depended on each other for lots and lots of things and became very close. Some of us have gotten together almost every year, even though we’re in Bainbridge, Washington; Wisconsin; Chicago; Chattanooga; Flagstaff. We all had kids at around the same time and our kids all know each other—they have pictures of each other at the Grand Canyon. The first group just went off to college. All of us have stayed connected in some way to education, which was the whole point for us back then. When one of them asks me to go somewhere or do something, I do it."
“For me, with my work in human resources, that’s often talking to students about business etiquette and dressing for success. No one really ever taught me a lot of those things. I spoke about that at a rural college about an hour from Raleigh last week; I’ve done it at historically black colleges as well. That experience of being with kids who were like me, who came from disadvantaged neighborhoods like I did, inspires me to want them to see me a little differently. I want them to see that their future can be successful as well.”
Jon Lohman (G.N.O.–LAD)
Virginia State Folklorist, Charlottesville, Va.
“I direct the Virginia Folklife Program, the state center for documenting, presenting, supporting, and celebrating all the ways in which people express a connection to a particular community: the stories we tell, the music we make, the food we cook, the rituals we participate in, and the work-related traditions we value. For me, all of this goes back to what I learned teaching for three years in an elementary school in New Orleans, in the neighborhood of Algiers."
“In my second year I was a music teacher, even though I’m not really trained in that. I had lunch duty in the yard one day, and the sixth grade boys were playing basketball and listening to hip hop, known just as rap there at the time. In the rap I heard the Meters being sampled—the Meters being one of the great New Orleans funk bands. The students had no idea they were hearing local musicians. I found that kind of disturbing."
“I was talking to another local musician who said, ‘You should give George a call and ask him to come into your class.’ That’s George Porter, the bass player of the Meters. George came in, and I turned it into a whole unit—we learned the songs, we painted murals. It was really meaningful to the kids, and it changed the relationship we had, me and my students. I started a program in New Orleans that brought mostly musicians and other traditional artists into schools, but I learned pretty quickly that you can’t build a program like that on one grant.”
Lohman went on to earn his doctorate in folklore and in 2001 started a project for the state of Virginia that pairs apprentices with masters in traditional arts and vocations like logsmithing and bluegrass banjo-playing. Over the years, his team has continuously brought folk masters into schools, including one school close to Lohman’s heart.
“My son is in first grade at Venable Elementary School, a public elementary school in Charlottesville. The principal is Erin Kershner (E.N.C. ’94), who was mentored in the corps by a friend who taught with me in New Orleans, Mary Garten (G.N.O.–LAD ’91).”
Among the Virginia legends that Lohman and Kershner have introduced to Venable students are gospel singers Cora Armstrong and the late Maggie Ingram and sisters and international oyster-shucking champions Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon.
“I’m committed to doing more of that. I think STEM and all that is great, but it’s so important for students to have these cultural experiences and to really understand the rich culture and traditions that are around them.”
Kimberly (Lasher) Mitchell (L.A.)
Entrepreneur and Author, Seattle
“After the corps, I trained at Stanford to be a principal. I don’t think I would have done it if it weren’t for all the exceptionally strong women who were my roommates and friends in the L.A. corps, Queena Kim, Natalie Rollhaus, Allison Jack, and Amy Wendel. Each of them upped my game."
“After being a principal, I was at the Gates Foundation as a senior program officer on the college-ready team. I found myself to be one of the only people on the team with teaching experience. The only other one who could speak from that experience was Sandra Licon (L.A. ’97), another inspiring TFA alum."
“Sandra was actually the one who influenced the next pivot in my life, and soon I got a call from Wendy Kopp at Teach For All, saying, ‘We have a team in Argentina who could use some support. Could you move down there with your family?’ More than 20 years after the corps, I returned to my teaching roots, helping young entrepreneurs prepare and lift Enseñá por Argentina’s first cohort of teachers off the ground."
“From there I moved back home to Seattle and decided to become an entrepreneur, starting a professional development organization called Inquiry Partners. We built an app, Earshot, applied for a TFA Social Innovation Award, and I found myself at a conference as a finalist. Here I was in my 40s. I felt a little embarrassed about my age around all the entrepreneurs who were so much younger. But I met other fabulous alums who embraced me immediately, like Colin Seale (D.C. ’04), who started ThinkLaw. I’m getting help from an alum across a generation and we are collaborating on our work. In fact, several TFAers like Colin are referenced in my book, Experience Inquiry, which will be published in August. And my old friend from the corps, Queena Kim, is a reporter for NPR now, and she’s on my Inquiry Partners board."
“It’s funny. Queena and I taught in the same school and carpooled every day. Some days were so hard that we just sat in the car and cried. I have to smile now when I hear Queena’s voice on the radio as I drive to work. She’s still with me.”
Elisa Hoffman (Mississippi)
School Board Member (2014-17), Cincinnati Public Schools, Cincinnati
“My corps member days were so long ago that if I were still teaching, I could be teaching the children of my first students. But what all those years in this work also means is that I have had the time to develop a really deep network of driven, equity-focused educators. At every stage in my career, I have depended on the TFA network."
“This network proved especially valuable while running for school board and serving in this role. My campaign manager was a second-year corps member and some of my most dedicated campaign volunteers were corps members and alumni, many of whom I had never met but whom I was able to connect with through the local TFA network."
“As a board member, I constantly tapped the network. When we discussed the need to revamp our enrollment process, I connected our superintendent with a TFA alum doing this work in another Midwestern city with a similar population and size. When we discussed how our principal jobs were so demanding that in many cases they were not sustainable, I used my TFA network to connect our administration team with a contact in D.C. Public Schools, since they are doing innovative work around principal structure. When our family and community engagement team talked about needing an easy way to gather feedback from parents, I connected them with a friend and former TFA colleague who does that work. And before hiring our new superintendent, I spoke with a number of TFA alumni serving on boards around the country who had recently been through this process. Their advice was invaluable."
“As I work now to launch a new program that will train people interested in running for school board in how to be effective in the role, I have again tapped into my network. From brainstorming at the inception of the idea, to interviewing former TFA colleagues currently serving on boards across the country—from Texas to West Virginia to New Hampshire—to just this morning when I contacted two alumni serving on boards in Minnesota, I would not have been able to develop this program without my TFA network."
Kenya Thacker Pierre (L.A.)
Vice President, General Counsel, ARAUCO North America, Atlanta
“In 2007, I moved to Atlanta to work for Coca-Cola. As my kids became school-aged, I became more involved in educational advocacy as a parent."
“In 2014, I decided to run for the school board in suburban Cobb County, where we live. I’m not a politician, and I’d never run for office before. But soon after I entered the race, LEE reached out to me. [Leadership for Educational Equity is a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to support Teach For America corps members and alumni seeking political and community leadership.] They supported me, their funders supported me—it was pretty spectacular. We raised $34,000."
“I was an unknown compared to my opponent, but I only lost by 4 percent of the vote. Even though I didn’t win, we ran a great campaign. We got people engaged around issues of equity that particularly affect black and Latino students in the district. I know we opened doors for others in Cobb County to run on some of those issues, too."
Dan DeFossey (R.G.V.)
Co-Founder, Pinche Gringo BBQ, Mexico City
“In 2009, I took a position with Apple in Mexico City. By 2012, I wanted a change. A good friend of mine, a Chilango [someone from Mexico City], and I contemplated opening a barbeque place. (I first learned how to make brisket from Mrs. Moreno, my neighbor in Roma, Texas, where I taught.) In 2013, my friend and I opened Pinche Gringo."
“Cara Volpe (Houston ’03) and I had met in New York City through ZogSports, an intramural league. By 2012, she had worked for TFA in New York and as a consultant, and became a huge resource to me when it came to setting up the business in a way that respected our employees and developed them as people. Typically, the restaurant industry here has low wages and long hours. We’ve changed that in our restaurant with hopes that it can catalyze other restaurants to do the same."
“In Mexico, I’ve met with leaders of Enseña por México (a Teach For All partner) at Pinche Gringo. And a lot of alum friends and their families have visited the restaurant. The best thing was a few weeks ago, one of my students from Roma High School showed up with her entire family. It was a very emotional experience for me.”
Ramsey Green (S. Louisiana)
Real Estate Developer and Entrepreneur, New Orleans
“Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. I was driving across the country that day, headed from my native San Diego toward Philadelphia to start grad school. But I loved Louisiana, and I felt like I needed to do something for the state."
“As part of my grad school funding, I was assigned to do data analysis for the Philadelphia School District, which was then run by Superintendent Paul Vallas. Penn Law student Mike Wang (S. Louisiana ’99), who had worked as an education advisor to the previous Louisiana governor, worked with me. Late one evening, Mike and I were in the Penn government school’s basement, staring at stats on computer screens, and I mentioned that I would love to spend the summer helping Louisiana recover from Katrina. He said, ‘I know the guy you need to talk to.’ And he picked up the phone and called the chief of staff for the Louisiana Recovery Authority."
“That guy, Adam Knapp, hired me sight unseen as a summer intern based on Mike’s word alone. A year later, Paul Vallas was the new superintendent in New Orleans and hired me as his budget director, and later as his COO. Adam Knapp is one of TFA’s biggest supporters in Louisiana. And I wouldn’t be in New Orleans, married to the love of my life, with two wonderful kids, working in a city that has given me more than I ever expected I’d have in life, if Mike Wang hadn’t picked up the phone in a West Philly basement one late evening in April 2006.”
Adriana Rodriguez (Houston)
Staff Attorney, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, Inc., Laredo, Texas
“In 2011, I met fellow Houston ’06 corps member Max Brodsky in Austin, Texas, for a milkshake. I was in law school at the time, and Max was in business school. I was planning to pitch a legal fellowship project for victims of domestic violence on the U.S.-Mexico border."
“With his business school background, Max gave me great ideas about how to talk about the project. I'm proud to say my Equal Justice Works fellowship project was selected and my career as a public interest lawyer launched.”
Bilal Khan (Connecticut)
IB and AP English Teacher, Saigon South International School, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
“I have been helped numerous times by alums both personally and professionally in the past few years. It's hard to differentiate ‘the network’ from what I would just consider my friends."
“TFA alums helped reintroduce me to my wife, set me up with a job at Achievement First in New Haven, Conn., wrote references for my career as an international teacher, and even supplied my wife and me with dozens of baby-related items when our daughter Leyla was born."
“Most recently, Edna Novak, my former TFA executive director in Connecticut and now at Teach For All, connected my wife and me to Teach For Vietnam, where we helped volunteer to run sessions during their inaugural corps’ induction period. It was a tremendous opportunity to help in the country we currently call home.”
Archie Moss (Charlotte)
Principal, Bruce Elementary School, Memphis, Tenn.
“I moved to Charlotte to do the corps not really knowing anyone, not having a network. At the time I was coming into Charlotte, there was a 2008 alum, Erica Jordan-Thomas, who kind of took me under her wing. She was interested in going into school leadership, and that was something I wanted to do. So when she had the opportunity of going off and doing a program, New Leaders, where she was a resident principal, which helped her get a school to lead in Charlotte, I followed her lead. I applied to New Leaders as well, and that’s what allowed me to step out of the classroom and become a school leader in Memphis."
“Even now in my second year as principal, Erica is still mentoring me along with another alum school leader, Erin Barksdale (Metro Atlanta ’07). Erin makes me check in with her weekly to be sure I’ve eaten every day. That’s one thing that as school leaders, we sometimes omit from our day-to-day operations, so she holds me accountable to that. There are times when I’ve sent the two of them long texts, just venting. We have this kind of bond where I know I can call on them for any particular reason, and they are right there to support me."
Brendan Hawkes (Metro Atlanta)
Head of Strategy, Student Success Network, New York City
"I had a really tight-knit group of friends in Atlanta. Rick Farmer, Jared Gourrier, Freddie Santana, Will Tate, Andy Castro, Reuschal Jackson, and I would fish together, and we usually did one whole-group trip a year. We’ve fished off the shore of Savannah, Ga., and Hilton Head Island, S.C. In the past couple of years, we've dispersed across the country. Weddings have sort of replaced the fishing trips. But when we were in Punta Cana, in the Dominican Republic, for Santana’s wedding, we carved out time for a fishing trip."
“The fishing trips have certainly given us time to reflect on our time in the classroom and discuss how we could help each other as we advance in our careers. One trip actually sparked the idea for an ill-fated and short-lived start-up. It’s the thought that counts! Those guys are still some of my best friends today. We keep in touch via group text and use that platform to discuss and grapple with the educational issues of the day. Four out of the seven of us still work in education.”
BreAnna Jones (Memphis)
Dean of Academics, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Memphis, Tenn.
“José Bonilla and I were in the Memphis corps together, and when you look at us you would never think we would be best friends. He’s a very light-skinned, blue-eyed Salvadoran with a very pristine and preppy style. Whereas I’m wearing my Afro-futuristic outfit and usually my natural hair. We just look like we’re completely different people coming from completely different worlds. But I think that when we’re 60 or 70 years old, we’ll be happy to look back together at our contributions to this work."
“José [who is now a talent recruiter for IDEA Public Schools] doesn’t let me quit. He always reminds me of why we do the work we do, and how if it were easy, then this organization wouldn't exist. Now that I’m a school leader, I hit some hard walls very often. José reminds me that to get to the other side, we’re just going to have to go through it. That giving up is for suckers. He tells me to ‘boss up at all times.’ If it weren’t for José, I’d be sitting in a law school classroom, getting ready to go into corporate law. But instead, I’m living out my deep convictions.”
Alix Smith (Appalachia)
School Counselor, ReNEW Cultural Arts Academy, New Orleans
“You never know who you’re going to run into. One day, while I was working for TFA at the Delta Institute, I was in my favorite burrito shop in Cleveland, Mississippi, Mosquito Burrito, and I ran into Kristan McCullum (Mississippi ’11). I was in shock! I hadn’t seen her in so many years. I mentioned to her that I was moving to New Orleans. She reached out later on and said, ‘Hey, I'm going to be in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I would love to see you.’"
“So Kristan, a couple of my friends from grad school, and my best friend from the corps, Stephanie Tanner (Appalachia ’11), went to Mardi Gras together this year. We were walking down the street in the French Quarter, and then, walking in the opposite direction, I saw Ryan Kluk (Arkansas ’17). When I worked as a corps member advisor at institute, Ryan was one of my corps members. He’s a big swing dancer. And of course, because it's New Orleans, someone was playing music on the corner, and Ryan said, ‘Let’s dance!’ It just felt like such a magical day because I hadn’t seen Kristan in so long, and then I bumped into Ryan. It affirmed that anything can happen during Mardi Gras.”
Interviews were condensed and edited for clarity. They were conducted by Paula Ann Solis, Faviola Leyva, Leah Fabel (Chi-NWI ’01) and Susan Brenna.
Illustration by Elan Harris