Since middle school, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. When I enrolled at the College of William and Mary that was the plan. But the summer after my sophomore year, I accepted an internship at an elementary school in the North Lawndale neighborhood in my hometown of Chicago. It was there that a different life plan began to take shape.
The school where I interned was just three miles from my high school, but they often felt worlds apart. At the high school in the North Lawndale neighborhood, the average ACT score was 16.7. At my private Jesuit college preparatory school, it was twice that. My classmates growing up never worried about whether they would have enough healthy food to eat when they went home that night. Meanwhile at my internship, one of my kindergarteners asked me what a carrot was because he didn’t have fresh vegetables at home.
But this same student proudly told me all about his dream to go to an elite Chicago public high school. As I looked around me, it wasn’t hard to see where he was getting his resolve and ambition from. The school was filled with dedicated, inspirational, hard-working individuals, all determined to help our kids reach their goals despite the odds they faced.
Every single task I was assigned, whether it was ordering nap mats or supervising gym class, was meaningful. I could see how even these routine jobs were part of a larger, dedicated effort to help every kid in the school access the opportunities they deserved.
After that internship, I knew education was where I wanted to be. So I applied early action for Teach for America, a program through which I will make a commitment to teach in the country’s highest need public schools. After my initial two years, I will continue teaching or possibly become a principal — wherever I can be most effective in making sure kids have the resources, access and support they need to be successful.
I decided to become a Teach for America corps member because I believe deeply in the promise of education to help all kids reach their full potential, regardless of the numbers in their zip code or their parents’ paychecks. Delivering on that promise will take major, substantive work from dedicated leaders all across the country. Indeed, events like the shooting and protests in Ferguson remind us of the persistent inequality in our nation and how far we have to go to change it. But when I step in the classroom, I will give all of my physical and emotional energy to my students in the hopes of using the talents and privileges I was given to make a difference.
I will be pushed harder than I have ever been, and this will be the most challenging and humbling experience of my life. But I strongly believe it is our duty as educated leaders to use what we have to become a part of something meaningful and so much bigger than ourselves.
Christina Haleas is a senior studying psychology. She will be a 2015 Teach For America-Saint Louis corps member. Email Christina Haleas at firstname.lastname@example.org.