Working for the Common Good

Teaching in Mississippi and Los Angeles offers challenges, rewards to recent graduates

Every spring, when the year's St. Thomas graduating class becomes new alumni, a collective sigh of relief is released. No more classes, no more professors, no more papers, no more finals. New challenges, however, quickly arise to take their places.

Young alumni can sometimes feel like an emotional mixing bowl of dilemmas, uncertainties, doubts, hopes and dreams. Questions loom over them: Where should I live? Where should I work? How can I fulfill my ideals while trying to kickstart my career?

Some young alumni find satisfying answers to these questions through a basic element of the St. Thomas' mission: service to the broader community. Today, there are a host of options for young, college-educated men and women to enrich and lift up others at the local, national and international level. Some of these programs are familiar - Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) - while others have been instituted just in the past decade.

According to Diane Crist, director of career development at St. Thomas, service to the community is emphasized in several undergraduate and graduate programs; therefore, students are often exposed to opportunities to assist in nonprofit and education-related fields. "I think because we are both a Catholic and a liberal arts college, there are always students with a goal of contributing to the Ôcommon good' as stated in our mission," Crist said.

A post-graduation survey conducted for the class of 2003 by career development was recently released. It revealed that 9 percent of respondents are employed with nonprofit organizations, about 6 percent are employed at some level of government, and nearly 15 percent are employed in an education field. The survey does not distinguish which respondents were full time, parttime, or volunteer, but gives an indication of the public-minded focus many recent St. Thomas graduates have.

Stephanie Reller and Michael Ochs, both 2003 graduates, are each in their second years of service work with different organizations. Their experiences speak well to the challenges and rewards of service and the preparation and inspiration provided by St. Thomas.

"... to continue my education, to serve and to enrich my faith."

When one of her high school students offered up a prayer during special intentions for a depressed dog, Reller, a native of Owatonna, Minn., wondered how she ended up where she is today.

In May 2003 Reller was graduating from St. Thomas, and in September 2003 she was in a classroom at St. Mathias High School, an underserved, Catholic all-girls school in Southeast Los Angeles. Since then, she has been teaching English and religion classes, primarily to juniors and sophomores.

"I was nervous to leave everything familiar to me," she said. "But I wanted to venture outside my comfort zone and do something that matters."

Reller is in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, sponsored by the University of Notre Dame. The program accepts young alumni who have not studied education but are strong in their fields, trains them to teach during summer courses, and places them in Catholic schools around the country where teachers and resources are scarce. During their two-year commitments, ACE participants spend the school year teaching at their placement schools and taking classes online, and spend their summers at Notre Dame attending summer session courses. While teaching, they live with other ACE participants in their service areas, and share housing, knowledge and camaraderie. In addition, they earn a stipend based on the cost of living in their locations.

When they finish, they have two years teaching experience, are eligible for a master's degree in education from Notre Dame, and can receive an AmeriCorps educational award benefit of almost $5,000.

According the Father Jim Lies, the on-campus representative for ACE, St. Thomas graduates have been involved in the program for each of the last nine years. "The applicant pool has historically been exceptional and is usually four to five times bigger than we can possibly take," Lies said.

He added that many of the St. Thomas ACE alumni continue to teach in Catholic schools, many of them in the Twin Cities.

"Without exception, the St. Thomas graduates who have been in ACE have contributed greatly to the program," Lies added.

Reller lives in an old rectory on the St. Mathias campus with five other ACE members. "When I joined ACE, I entered into one of the best communities I've ever been a part of," she said. She and her fellow teachers eat together, pray together and support each other. While admitting that so much time with one another can sometimes be challenging, Reller said, "They also inspire me."

Reller has degrees in English and Spanish. She often thought about pursuing an education major as well, but knew trying to obtain three degrees would simply be too difficult.

"I was blessed in so many ways growing up and at St. Thomas, and I wanted to give back, especially in the educational arena," she said. Reller was involved in the St. Thomas campus in many different ways, including as a resident adviser in Murray Hall and with Campus Ministry. As a result, the ACE program turned out to be a perfect fit for her.

"ACE was a way for me to teach, to continue my own education, to serve, and to enrich my faith," Reller said.

Now in her second year, Reller said she has grown more comfortable with the teaching profession. "During the first year, you're confronted with all your inadequacies," she said. "I fell flat on my face the first few weeks, but little by little, it became easier."

Reller also said she has learned as much from her students as they have from her, including the spirit and community of women. "In many ways, I'm very different from my students," she said. "But we all come together." Reller, who is white, teaches primarily young Hispanic women growing up in impoverished households.

"I've gained a lot of strength. When I came here I wasn't strong, but after faking it for a while, I've learned how to be strong."

Southeast Los Angeles, where Reller lives and teaches, is a poverty-stricken urban area that presents difficult challenges for young educators. Some of her students live in tough neighborhoods, where loved ones die as a result of gang violence, teenage pregnancy is not uncommon, and nurturing educational environments are few and far between.

"Seeing the challenges some of my students have lived through has inspired me to make myself better for them," Reller said.

Reller will complete her ACE service in June, at the end of this school year, and will be awarded her master's degree in education from Notre Dame this summer. She has looked at a number of different opportunities for life afterward; the program has further service options in Chile and Ireland as well as strong networks in several cities throughout the United States. She hopes to continue working in Catholic education.

Right now, though, her mind is focused solely on the minds of her students.

"... a division between the have-nots and the have-even-less."

When Michael Ochs first arrived in the Mississippi Delta, he didn't immediately realize he was stepping into, as he calls it, "a forgotten land."

"I remember when I first moved down here, everyone was very nice. They brought desserts to our door and invited us to church. When I told them I was Catholic, though, I noticed they stepped back a bit and didn't want to hang around too long after that," he said.

Ochs is in his second year as a Teach for America corps member at an elementary school in Ruleville, Miss., where divisions, fears, and bigotry are often masked with Southern charm.

He said that the races are still very separated in that part of the country. "When you talk about meeting someone from the other side of the tracks, they literally live on the other side of tracks."

Ochs lives and works in the one of the poorest regions of the United States, where the education system has nearly hit rock bottom. He teaches reading, language arts and social studies to third-graders, many of whom are growing up in extreme poverty.

"It's not so much that there is a division between the haves and the have-nots here; it's more of a division between the have-nots and the have-even-less," he said.

Teach for America was dreamed up in 1988, when its founder, Wendy Kopp, was a senior at Princeton University. After securing seed money through a grant, Kopp and a small group of other recent graduates began the organization with the goal of eliminating education inequity in the United States.

The program recruits recent college graduates who did not major in education. It then trains them through its six-week Summer Institute, which involves student teaching, studying various aspects of education, and several courses on how to be an effective teacher. At the end of the training, these people become Teach for America corps members and are placed in one of 22 sites across the country.

Since 1990, more than 12,000 individuals have joined Teach for America and committed two years to teaching in low-income rural and urban communities. It has grown to become a major nonprofit organization, and continues to have an impact on the schools it reaches out to and on the corps members who participate in it.

Corps members are paid directly by the school districts they work for and their salaries are typical of a beginning teacher. In addition, they are eligible for nearly $10,000 that can be used toward future educational expenses or to repay student loans.

Ochs began seriously considering Teach for America during his senior year at St. Thomas. "I had vague ambitions of attending graduate school," he said, "but I knew I needed some maturity and life experience before I delved into the serious depths of intellectual rigor."

An English major, Ochs wanted to do some sort of humanitarian work, and felt like Teach for America was a good fit. "I could stay in America and help solve our country's problems, earn a paycheck, and possibly continue to work within the organization [at the end of my service]," he said.

After graduating in May 2003, Ochs attended his summer training in Houston. "The days were long and strenuous; I would liken it to a boot camp for educators," he said.

That fall, Ochs entered a classroom in Mississippi for the first time. "To say it was an adjustment is an understatement," he said. "I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life. The Mississippi Delta has the lowest retention rate of all the corps sites, but I was determined to stick with it."

Ochs added that, unlike many of the urban sites, the corps members in the Delta region develop into a close-knit community. "All of us support each other," he said. "We always try to lift each other up when we know someone is having a tough time."

In addition to starting out as a teacher with only a few weeks of background training, Ochs had to contend with the difficulties of an under-resourced school in an impoverished rural community.

"There just isn't enough money to go around," he said. In order to compensate for this, Ochs began an e-mail chain asking those with new or used children's books to send them his way as donations to the school library. The response was very strong.

"Illiteracy is a huge problem in this country, and especially in the Delta," Ochs said. "Part of the problem at my school is that the kids simply didn't have quality books to help them learn how to read and write, and there was no money to buy any."

Now in his second year, Ochs said that he is much more comfortable as a teacher. "The first year was very stressful, but now that I have the routine down I enjoy it much more," he said.

Ochs believes there are not very many drawbacks to Teach for America, but rather it has provided him with an exceptional educational opportunity while he educates others.

"The benefits of Teach for America are gaining insights on the American educational system and the immense challenges that our country faces if we want to continue believing we are the best at everything we do," he said.

"I happen to live now in a unique region, unlike any other. I have certainly learned a lot about different subcultures, histories and dialects of a forgotten land.

"There are certainly challenges, but Teach for America is looking for people with strong leadership qualities and the attitudes that accompany those qualities because those are the ones most likely to last in challenging environments," Ochs said.

He added that St. Thomas graduates have strong representation in Teach for America. "St. Thomas does a good job of turning students into leaders," he said. "And I credit its healthy social justice presence."

As a reporter and editor for the Aquin and a consultant at the Center for Writing, Ochs was very involved as an undergraduate. Those experiences serve him well now, he said.

Ochs will finish his Teach for America experience in June, but may continue on in Mississippi. He is considering applying for a regular teaching position at his school. No final decisions have been made yet, but Ochs knows one thing for sure: he wants to continue helping others.

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