RISE Student Leadership Conference 2018

My Personal Theory of Change

A first-generation college student and participant in TFA’s RISE: Student Leadership Conference calls for career and technology education programs to be made available to all students.
Monday, June 4, 2018

Growing up, in Florence, South Carolina, I attended Title 1 elementary, middle, and high schools, which means they had a lot of low-income students. Florence is in what locals call “the corridor of shame,” a region of rural, under-resourced school districts along I-95 that are burdened by poverty and poorly performing schools, many of which are Title 1. I am a product of the career and technology education program in Florence. I became a certified chef at age 15, and that changed my view of what can be accomplished in high school.

The wonderful culinary arts training I acquired from my instructors led me to create my own company, FairyCakessc, a bakery with a unique mission and purpose: providing the youth of South Carolina with the skills, knowledge, and encouragement to pursue their career goals through culinary and leadership classes and mentoring programs. This, in turn, led me to be a recipient of the Disney Dreamers Academy, sponsored by Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. Disney Dreams Academy provides 100 students each year with the unique opportunity to grow their entrepreneurial skills through a four-day mentoring program held at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It aims to prepare students for their future through developing their professional and networking skills. Since then, I have grown my company throughout high school and even more so during college.

My story is vaguely similar to others. I’m a first-generation college student with a desire to change the world. The odds are stacked against me, because I am among the minority in our society, an African American young woman with a dream of ensuring all students have equitable resources and opportunities. Growing up, I felt like I was going through a lot of things alone with regard to college: My parents did not attend college and my siblings were all older and already out of the house when I started my college journey.

Although I was blessed with amazing opportunities at a young age, I still didn’t possess some of the essential things I needed throughout my first two years of college. As a first-generation college student, I wish I’d known how to reduce cost in college. Many of my peers attended college classes in high school, but my parents didn’t push for this because they were not aware of the option. My high school also didn’t encourage students to take this route because they believed it would be too strenuous on us. Every student deserves a strong educational background with an emphasis on professional development and career readiness. My personal theory of change is centered on this principle.

The RISE: Student Leadership Conference... ignited my fire to help correct the issues that students in South Carolina like myself have been facing for years, and to work to modify and improve education, starting in my state.
Thomasena Thomas

My theory of change is that we must provide all children with the necessary resources they need to succeed in high school through the implementation of career and technology education programs. I believe all children should have the push and support they need to find their purpose and passion in life while they are young. The South Carolina career and technology education program did that for me. If every child could receive the support and guidance they need to find their passion, our education system would be better.

The most challenging part about living out my Theory of Change is that I know what it feels like to feel inadequate because I did not receive the same opportunities as my more affluent peers. Educational inequity is a complex issue. There are many issues that are cross-sectional and affect how education is approached, funded, and advanced in marginalized communities. If leaders give into a mindset of “it’s never going to change” or “this is just how it is,” then things will never advance and inequities such as underfunded schools and unequal opportunities will persist. I am a firm believer that, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.” I recognize that today we’ve come to understand that systemic issues affect the advancement of many people and organizations in American society, but I am still hopeful that this issue is solvable. With organizations such as Teach For America, change can happen.

FairyCakesSC Bakery
Thomasena Thomas in her bakery, FairyCakesSC

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of attending Teach For America’s RISE: Student Leadership Conference, which helped me refine my view on education and how we can be change agents and transform the education system. RISE is a life-changing four-day experience that challenges students to see how we can be better leaders. The conference offered different workshops and sessions to grow our knowledge around what an impactful leader can accomplish. RISE was powerful and thought provoking, and it forced me to challenge myself into thinking about how I can affect the next generation with my actions now. Being surrounded by so many individuals who are passionate about their theories of change, who are ready to implement those changes at their institutions and in their communities, was powerful and motivating. RISE reminded me why I am in the fields of education and political science. It ignited my fire to help correct the issues that students in South Carolina like myself have been facing for years, and to work to modify and improve education, starting in my state.

Teach For America isn’t afraid to contradict the system. It continues to work tirelessly for change, seeking to create a more equitable society for the next generation of change agents, starting with education. For a more equitable society to happen, we must address the problems in our society full force, with diligence. I am here to be a part of the movement—a part of the change. I am just one of many stories. What’s your theory of change?

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