At the beginning of the school year at YES Prep West Public School in Houston, Texas, UT Knoxville alumna Laura Nishida told one of her students that he was smart and she couldn’t wait to hear about his college choice.
Nishida said the student looked at her with wide eyes and said, “You’re the first person that has ever told me I am smart.”
“You could immediately see him carry himself differently because he finally believed in himself,” Nishida said. “If you tell a child they can succeed, they will believe it.”
Nishida is one of three UT Knoxville students from various academic disciplines who, as their undergraduate careers drew to an end, knew they wanted to give back in some way and figured those few years after college would be the best time to do so.
They decided to join Teach For America, an organization that recruits top college graduates of all academic majors to expand opportunity for children in low-income areas and decrease education inequity.
Nishida, of Knoxville, graduated in May 2010 with a degree in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology. She started teaching sixth grade science in August.
At UT, Nishida was a member of Zeta Tau Alpha, a sorority that prides itself on its philanthropy for breast cancer education and awareness. She also served on the Panhellenic Council for two and a half years.
Nishida said a quote from TFA’s vision statement inspired her to join TFA: “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.”
Alumnus Jamie Lonie also works in Houston at Petersen Elementary School, where he teaches pre-kindergarten through fifth grade science lab and works with children on basic science skills before applying each of those concepts to a hands-on experiment.
Lonie, of Jackson, Tennessee, graduated in May 2010 with a public relations degree. He served in the Student Government Association for four years and served as the organization’s student services director during his senior year. He also went on the 2008 alternative fall break trip to Roanoke, Virginia.
“It took me a while to figure out how I could make an impact, but I was eventually drawn to TFA’s mission to end education inequality,” Lonie said. “I wouldn’t have successfully made it to college at UT if it hadn’t been for my teachers in grade school.”
Lonie can appreciate that as he learns to teach, his students are making tremendous academic strides themselves.
“I like being able to see their academic progress,” Lonie said. “Especially with the younger students, I can see dramatic growth over one school year.”
Alumna Avery Mannino has also been able to witness her students’ academic progress. Her students came into kindergarten without the prerequisite skills they needed and at the end of the year, they were reading and writing and ready for first grade.
“I was so amazed by how much my students learned this year,” Mannino said. “On the first day of school, I would never have thought that was possible, but I didn’t stop believing in them. They are truly amazing little people.”
Mannino, of Memphis, graduated in May 2010 with a degree in enterprise management and marketing. She joined TFA in June and taught at a school in Colorado Springs for one year and will transfer to a charter school in Denver to teach for two more years.
While in Knoxville, Mannino was active in the Student Alumni Association and Alpha Delta Pi and served as a campus campaign coordinator with the TFA recruitment team.
—Emma Macmillan (’11)