A Corps Member Interviews TFA's CEO on Education In Appalachia, Rural Regions

After her recent visit to TFA–Appalachia, our CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard shared with Autumn Halberstadt (Appalachia '16) why she's hopeful for the future of rural regions.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix ’98) recently visited the Appalachia region to learn more about the corps members, alumni, families, and schools working together to make an impact in eastern Kentucky. Corps member Autumn Halberstadt (Appalachia ’16) got the chance to speak with Elisa about her visit and why she is hopeful for the future of rural regions.


Autumn: What have you enjoyed most about visiting Kentucky?

TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix '98) saw "immense diversity within one community" in Appalachia, "which is why we have to continue getting real stories from real people."

Elisa: Hearing from the people—the students, parents, teachers, the [Martin County] superintendent, and his wife. I have gotten to hear real stories from real people. These stories help us better understand the challenges and opportunities in the region.

Autumn: There has been a lot of discussion in the news recently about rural communities and their unique needs. What can you share about TFA's commitment to its rural regions?

Elisa: TFA is fiercely committed to its rural communities, but I think we can do better. There isn’t enough conversation about rural experiences and communities in the reform effort. We often find generalizations in mainstream platforms so it is important to begin to understand the complexities and nuances of place. There is immense diversity within one community, which is why we have to continue getting real stories from real people. We also need to be smart in how we support them.

Autumn: From your time visiting the region and your work with our executive director, what makes you most excited about TFA–Appalachia’s impact? What makes you most excited about our students and the community here?

Elisa: I have realized that people absolutely love this place. Stories and family are valued: Family is life, and that is very powerful. When talking with corps members, they say over and over again how caring and welcoming the community is and how they take care of one another. It is a unique and special culture to be a part of.

I’ve noticed three main themes among corps members working in the Appalachia region:

  1. They have a deep sense of responsibility, and sincerely care about the students and communities they are living and working in. There is a belief instilled in their students that they can do anything. A student I got the pleasure of speaking with earlier today said, “My teachers have changed my life. I believe I can do anything because they believe that.” Overall, there is a profound feeling of love.
  2. They set high expectations. The teachers expect our kids to be great. It is a simple belief, but it hasn’t always happened for our kids across regions.
  3. I am struck by the collaborative nature between teachers, students, and administrators, not to mention, the respect for community members. There is a clear understanding that we need everyone to make progress, not just TFA, not just one person. Groups of people coming together is a powerful concept.

Autumn: One of the interesting things about TFA-Appalachia is the number of corps members and alumni that grow up in this region and have a deep desire to stay within it and continue making a local impact. This is not always the case in rural communities. An Education Week article described it as such: “educated young people, for the most part, leave rural places and, even if they want to, cannot return. The phenomenon is so common that it has a name: rural brain drain.” How can we continue to encourage young people to invest their talents in the places they grew up in?

Elisa: As I talked with students, it became clear that every community has opportunity in front of it. The value of family is prioritized and clear. People want to be close to one another. The opportunity here is, how do we figure out how to create economic opportunities in this region? I’m not sure that there is a clear answer; it is a challenge. We know that the coal and mining industry is not going back to what it once was, so how then do we envision the next 20 years? What do we do to create something new? Students and families in the community want to figure it out.

Without opportunity, it makes the area susceptible to young people leaving; however, they want to stay and figure out options instead. For example, one student described her home as “I think about front porches and bluegrass music. It’s what gives me life.” There are huge assets here, just like the livelihood this student described. It’s about creating the conditions to bring it to life.

Autumn: What is one thing about you that most of our readers would be surprised to know?

Elisa: Most people probably don’t know that I was a very good basketball player in high school. I still hold the scoring record with a high of 41 points.

Autumn Halberstadt (Appalachia '16)

Autumn: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

Elisa: I’m thinking about the processes of the recent presidential race, and how we represent our communities. We have to be responsible storytellers. We need to lean into the complexities and nuances of our regions, and avoid speaking with authority and commentary on the aspects we are still unfamiliar with. We have the privilege of getting to know the children of this community. When people believe and invest in our communities, they can change kids’ lives.


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