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New grads bridging the education gap

Cornell students understand the power of education, and that's one reason many of them are taking part in the Teach for America program.

An increasingly popular post-graduation option for Cornell students, Teach for America places young college graduates from all degree areas in classrooms in low-income school districts.

Paul Appel '10, who spent the past year in New Mexico teaching sixth-grade language arts, history, and math, is one of those students.

He said his students test below grade level, and some of them have hard home lives, but he's seeing progress, and the school community has welcomed him.

His Cornell education was part of the reason he applied for the program. He said he knew he wanted to help people, and had planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, but after a semester abroad in Costa Rica, he decided to join Teach for America. And although it's been difficult, it's been rewarding, too.

"I think Teach for America provides an opportunity for those who are seriously invested in service and education to make a difference," he said. "I am certainly not the most qualified to walk into a classroom. But I try to be the most passionate, the hardest working, and the most invested in my children. And that's why my children will succeed when others have already written them off."

Emma Reicks '09 taught for two years at Imagine Bell Canyon Charter School in Phoenix, and recently graduated with a master's degree in education from Arizona State University.

"I joined Teach for America after studying educational policy in southern Africa in my first (and only) education class at Cornell," she wrote. "As it was my third and final year at Cornell (I graduated early), it was too late to change from a psychology to an education major. I immediately applied to TFA upon my return from Africa."

Reicks called the experience transformational. "The support I received has helped me become a leader who works tirelessly to see that, educationally, inequity is challenged and dismantled," she said. She spent both years teaching a second grade class.

Brittany Szczepanik '09 first heard about Teach for America from a recruiter during her junior year at Cornell. The recruiter told her about the desperate need for teachers in some school districts, and Szczepanik knew she wanted to help. She has spent two years teaching in southern Louisiana. It wasn't always easy, she said, but it was important work.
Szczepanik added that the experience opened her eyes to the education gap in America, and how Teach for America is trying to bridge that gap.

"I knew I had to be a part of it," she said.