foot on soccer ball

Former Soccer Standout: Teach For America 'Pushed Me to Be a Better Leader'

After her college career on the pitch wound down, Alisha Woodson was unsure about her next chapter until she found her purpose with Teach For America.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
soccer player celebrating goal
At Wake Forest, Alisha made the All-ACC Honor Roll twice and even earned a call-up to the U.S. Women's U-23 national soccer team.

Alisha Woodson (Greater Nashville ’13) is gearing up for her first day at Vanderbilt University, where she will pursue a master’s degree in higher-education administration. It’s a far cry from where she thought she’d be three years ago, when she graduated from Wake Forest University and became a Teach For America corps member.

“I thought I would teach for two years and then do something else,” the former college and U.S. women's under-23 national team soccer player says. “But now, the field of education—and this work in particular—is where I want to be for life.”

A native of San Diego, Alisha fell in love with Nashville, and specifically, the community where she taught. “I chose Vandy because I wanted to stay here,” she says. “I’ve invested in the community, I’ve invested in the children, and I feel very connected to the social change that’s going on here.”

Now she hopes to effect even greater change on a larger scale; she plans to eventually use her degree to establish her own college support program that will serve as a bridge to get kids to and through college.

"It’s not just academics—I see a lot of students, especially first-generation college students, who don’t have the financial literacy or resources to gain college access," she says. "And I know the Teach For America network is going to help me make that happen."

Alisha sat down and talked to us recently about her next career step and how her athletic experience built skills that will help her succeed as a leader.

You played soccer for Wake Forest, where you were appointed team captain your junior and senior seasons and led the program to its first conference title in school history. You even earned a call-up to the U.S. under-23 national team. How did you end up going from college athlete to Teach For America?

It started when I traveled to Los Angeles for Urban Project L.A. with Athletes in Action. I got to spend three weeks in the Nickerson Gardens projects of Watts with kids ranging from 5 to 13 years old. We would go to their neighborhood, tutor them, and teach them how to play soccer. We even took them to the beach for the first time. I saw low-income children who had so much potential, but barely had anything. It’s also the first time I heard the word privilege.

Back at Wake, I got injured my senior year, so I went to a job fair. I saw this Teach For America poster of these black kids smiling, and I immediately though of the kids I worked with at Nickerson Gardens. I learned there were a couple of Wake Forest athletes who were already in TFA, like Paul Loeser (Mississippi ’12), and decided this is what I wanted to do.

You said earlier that your first year in the classroom was tough. What pushed you to eventually succeed?

I taught fourth grade at Glencliff Elementary. The first year was tough, but I thought my MTLDs [teacher coaches], Kessa Scott and Rebecca Baker, were awesome. They gave me several resources and were flexible with me, in terms of my schedule. They would come to my classroom and support me onsite as well.

I was also fortunate that my principal assigned me a mentor teacher, who really helped me grow into the job and offered another perspective on how to teach. I’m really thankful that I had so much help. TFA was great, but it wasn’t just TFA alone. It was everyone at the school working together like a machine to make me a better teacher for my kids.

teacher in front of classroom with students raising hands
Alisha in action as a corps member in Greater Nashville, where she taught at Glencliff Elementary, and later, Rocketship United Academy (seen here).

What do you think joining Teach For America provided you with that other post-college jobs might not have?

Teach For America has opened my eyes to so many privileges that I had growing up, even as a black woman. I was raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in San Diego and got to go to upper-middle-class public schools. It’s also opened my eyes to what goes on in the frontlines for students in low-income neighborhoods who didn’t have a lot of the things I had growing up. There’s a clear barrier there.

Another thing that Teach For America has opened my eyes to, that I might not see with another job, is the trickle-down effect of education. What scares me the most is that if policymakers and people we elect to our school boards pass a policy with negative outcomes, that affects the schools, then the teachers, and then most importantly, it hits our students.

There are so many things our kids have to endure, and that has driven my passion for educational equity. I want my students to be represented correctly. I want their intelligence to be represented correctly. I want them to have the same opportunities I did.

My students are still in elementary and middle school, but I really worry about them when they get to high school with the current system in place. But knowing they can be catalysts for change is what brings me hope.

I thought I would teach for two years and then do something else. But now, the field of education—and this work in particular—is where I want to be for life.

You’ll be attending Vanderbilt University to earn a master’s degree in higher-education administration, but you had other choices. Why Vandy? What do you plan to do next?

I chose Vandy because I wanted to stay here. I’ve invested in the community, I’ve invested in the children, and I feel very connected to the social change that’s going on here.

This perspective was the result of my four years at Wake Forest and the other things I’ve been able to do through Teach For America. In addition to teaching, I went on a leadership journey to Dallas with TFA alumni and staff. I also worked at TFA–Greater Nashville’s summer institute as a teaching coach and culture coach, where I facilitated group discussions on diversity.

Thinking of my students has shaped my vision, as far as wanting to be a bridge between their hopes and dreams and getting them the resources and tools they need to access the future they want. I want them to be prepared for that step. There are several programs that do that already, like KIPP Through College.

I want to bring something similar to low-income areas in Nashville, especially those with language barriers. I want to be that liaison and when I graduate, my plan is to bring a program like that here, because there’s definitely a need. It’s not just academics—I see a lot of students, especially first-generation college students, who don’t have the financial literacy or resources to gain college access. And I know the Teach For America network is going to help me make that happen.

professionals posing together in classroom
Alisha (bottom, first from left) in Dallas earlier this year on a leadership journey with fellow TFA alumni and staff.

What would you tell a college athlete about why Teach For America could be the right fit for them?

I think we find our purpose in our sport. Our strengths and weaknesses come out. For me, my purpose was about to be gone because of my injury and I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I think Teach For America gave me a greater and higher purpose. It’s pushed me to be a better leader and to use my voice to advocate with and alongside people. For myself, it has completely changed my view of this world and of people. That’s why I would encourage everybody to do it, especially athletes, who have a specific skill set we can hone as coachable people. Basically, teaching is coaching kids to success.

Teach For America has shown me that my purpose is to fight for something greater than myself. That’s where my athleticism comes in, too, because I’m a competitive person. You want to fight for your students. You fight as relentlessly as you would if you were fighting for a championship. And equity in education is the championship. It’s where we want to go, and can go, if we do it as a team. It’s going to hurt along the way. It’s going to be painful. But it’s so worth it in the end. As athletes, we can use every skill we’ve learned, on the court or on the field, to really push education to where it needs to be.

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