Teacher with three students wearing green
Terrance Sims employs some innovative methods to get 54 fourth-grade students engaged in his classroom at Milwaukee College Prep.

#ProofPointDay: First-Generation College Graduate Equips Students for Next Level

In honor of #ProofPointDay, we caught up with Terrance Sims (Milwaukee ’15), who is using his experience as the first in his family to graduate from college to prepare students from his hometown for what lies ahead.
Friday, May 27, 2016

Terrance Sims was made in Wisconsin and is proud of it.

“I lived in about nine different houses all over Milwaukee,” he recalls. “I attended public, private, and even bilingual schools. I even kept it in-state for undergrad.”

However, unlike most of his peers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Terrance didn’t have any family members who went to college.

“They didn’t know much about the school system and the whole application process, so whatever my cousin did, I would sign up for, too,” he says. “One of the programs we both did ended up getting us college scholarships, so we went.”

After graduating on a pre-med track, Terrance realized that while college can serve a bridge to a career, attaining ultimate success involves a lot more than just showing up to class.

“There are so many things I wish I knew back then,” he remembers. “For example, it didn’t dawn on me until my junior year that while I was getting good grades, I wasn’t getting these opportunities that would make me stick out from other college students if I applied for jobs or for med school afterward,” he says.

Without internships, job experience, or networking to supplement his accomplishments in the classroom, his application would look bare. As a result, he took a year off, and during that time, fell in love with the educational field.

Now back in his hometown as a first-year teacher with Teach For America, Terrance is imparting that wisdom to his fourth-grade students at Milwaukee College Prep.

“A lot of what drives what I do in the classroom is stuff I missed out on in undergrad or had to catch up on,” says Terrance, who was a teacher’s assistant for two years before assuming the lead teacher role this year. “If I can get this information to my fourth graders 10 years before I got it, they’ll be better prepared if they eventually choose to go to college.”

On #ProofPointDay, which celebrates first-generation college students, we chatted with Terrance, who shared some of the unique measures he’s taken to ensure that his fourth graders are set to take on the world one day.

college graduate smiling with friends
Terrance graduated pre-med from Wisconsin, but realized that success post-college required more than a degree.

What are some things that first-generation college students might not pick up right away when they get to campus?

Obviously, the coursework is at a higher level, but there’s so much I wasn’t aware of as far as how to be a college student, or how college is supposed to prepare you professionally. For example, how to show yourself on social media, how to present your résumé, how to budget your money, and balancing your time.

Also, my family didn’t go to college, but I come from a religious background and we have a church. Everyone in the family has a job, and mine was to play the keyboard. They knew I didn’t have class on Sundays, so they really couldn’t understand why I couldn’t drive out an hour and a half to play for Sunday services.

I wanted to bring them up to campus so they could see a day in my life—so they could see that I wasn’t trying to cut anybody off or be a brand-new person, but rather, so they could see that this dedication to my coursework was what it was going to take for me to be successful.

What are some things you’re doing in your fourth-grade classroom to make sure your students don’t encounter the same pitfalls you did?

I want my class to bring out the competitive nature in kids to push themselves, but also build character and being self-aware of who they are. I also want my kids to come into school excited, because then the learning takes care of itself. We have a studio in the classroom where kids record educational songs, and we've done a role model photo series celebrating Black History Month. Another thing we’re doing this year is everyone is writing a résumé.

student dancer striking a pose
One of Terrance's students strikes a pose for a Role Model Series that the class did for Black History Month.

Wait. Your nine and 10-year-olds are writing résumés?

Yes! They’re documenting their educational experience, their job experience, honors, all in fourth grade. Now you’re thinking, they don’t have jobs, but they do; they have class jobs. In our school, we work on character and values, so if you’ve won a Trust Award or a Respect Award the past two years, I’ll let you put that on your résumé.

At this point, we all have rough drafts out. Now we’re using Bloom’s Taxonomy and taking out words from that list to incorporate into their résumés. It builds a competitive atmosphere, too, because I tell them they can’t just say, “I go to school,” because we’re all doing that. You can’t just say, “I read my book,” because we all do that.

They need to find ways to stick out among the people around them. Now I have students signing up for volunteer opportunities, or enrolling in summer programs in Milwaukee. So as they get older, they’ll be tweaking their résumés, and by the time they get to high school, they’ll have a legitimate résumé to use to apply to jobs.

resume of student
Terrance's students are already developing life skills like creating (and building) a résumé.

How have your students responded?

It’s been great, because it’s been encouraging kids to be their best. For example, one of my students wrote a really nice book about his brother, who has autism. His mom helped him edit it, and we sent the text and pictures to my friend, who’s an artist in Los Angeles. Now we’re getting the book published with the help of a grant here in Milwaukee. On his résumé, he’ll be able to put he’s a published author.

What does it mean to you to see the difference you’re making in their young lives?

It means a whole lot. There are issues they’ll face one day, and as a teacher, you get the chance to affect so many kids every single year. We often talk about what we can do for one person; I have 54 kids, and if I’m able to get a résumé out of 54 kids, that’s one less thing they’ll have to worry about as they get older.

We’re a college prep in name and in nature, so starting that conversation about college is easier. But now we can go deeper. I want to develop them as people, but seeing what I’ve seen, I want to instill that confidence and readiness so that college is a viable option if they choose to go that route.

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