A group of young men and women make funny faces and gestures while posing for a photo.

Starting Up a Life to Be Proud Of

A Teach For America alumna considers her path from the corps to business school, and how high expectations and the desire to cultivate a life that matters drive her progress.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Each day, during her time as a Teach For America corps member, Elaine Dang (New Mexico ’09) greeted her high school geometry students on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico in a silly way, often with an unusual take on the classic high-five. But for all the silliness she exhibited, Elaine was equally strict, especially when it came to time management. She quickly learned that she had to hone her own strengths and quirks to be an effective teacher.

“I was really confident about what I wanted to do with my students and I knew how to communicate why I was doing what I was doing,” Elaine recalls.

Being able to communicate the “why” behind her decisions allowed her to hold her students to the highest of expectations. And it proved effective—under her leadership, student achievement grew three times faster than the district average, and her geometry students went from nearly last place to first place in the district.

Elaine Dang

This notion of holding people to high expectations has stuck with Elaine as she works toward her MBA at Yale and develops her career.

“I now expect a lot out of people regardless of where they come from,” she says. “I’ve seen my students overcome some of the hardest challenges and obstacles a person can think of.”

After teaching for two years in New Mexico, Elaine relocated to Kenya where she worked with an education startup. Led there by her interest in international education, she quickly learned how social and economic issues were having an impact on the community there.

Elaine Dang

Elaine is a firm believer that social change is more effective when led from within. “I really do believe that people from the community need to be the ones leading the change and anyone coming from the outside are supporters and can help,” Elaine says.

Her convictions led her to another startup in Kenya—one that was tech-focused and entirely Kenyan-ran, led by a CEO who had a vision to create more jobs and foster an environment that would prevent the country’s brain drain.

In 2013, Elaine was at Westgate Mall in Nairobi the day terrorists attacked and killed 67 people. Going through a near-death experience, Elaine began to think about how her skills and talents were being utilized and where she was putting herself to use in giving back to the world. She soon returned to the U.S. and Teach For America to work on staff, before enrolling at Yale.

Most recently, Elaine completed a fellowship with Learn Capital, an education venture capital firm based in California that works with companies that are trying to close the global inequity gap. Her role at Learn Capital was to help them think about talent and recruitment, especially in regards to diversity.

“Our generation is now demanding more sustainable, more equitable, more grassroots-oriented companies, and I really want to be the one who helps companies prepare for the future,” Elaine says.

A young woman with long wavy black hair in a blue dress and black graduation gown, smiling outdoors.

As she works toward her MBA, she’s developing an interest in what she describes as “innovation consulting”—helping companies think about their place in the future. 

At the same time, Elaine continues to keep up with her students as they often reach out for advice and update their former teacher on school, work, and life.

Helping her students overcome some of the obstacles they faced was the biggest privilege of her life, she admits. “I’m just so grateful that I had the opportunity to do that and now my students are my friends, my mentors, and my mentees for the rest of my life.

“When you think about your life you want to think about what you would be proud of at the end. To me, still by far, Teach For America is the number one thing I think about.”

Inspired to make a difference like Elaine? Apply to Teach For America by our next deadline, and awaken kids' potential and your own. 

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