Spreading educational equality

UB alumni discuss their experiences working for Teach For America

The Spectrum

Katherine Rizzone led students through their first experience at an art museum. She held earth science labs outdoors. She watched one of her students score his first-ever goal on the soccer field.

Rizzone, a UB alumna, experienced these proud moments during her time working for Teach For America.

Teach for America (TFA) was created in 1990, aiming to find "leaders who work to ensure kids growing up in poverty receive an excellent education," according to its website. There are 16 million American children facing the challenges of poverty and "an increasing body of evidence shows they can achieve at the highest levels," according to TFA.

Rizzone is one of approximately 40 UB alumni who have joined the movement to help impoverished children enjoy a high-quality education.

During her undergraduate years at UB, Rizzone wanted to attend medical school. But during her senior year, she realized she "needed to gain greater perspective [on life] and a stronger sense of social responsibility." She considered joining the Peace Corps after graduation, but when a friend told her about TFA, the organization intrigued her.

"As I learned more about it, I discovered it was a domestic teaching corps and provided an opportunity to make a meaningful impact here in the U.S.," Rizzone said.

She spent her time at UB working at the tutoring center and volunteering at a local Boys & Girls Club with the UB Crew team, of which she was a member.

But volunteering didn't expose her to the same social issues TFA did.

Reading about TFA opened her eyes to America's educational disparities, she said. Rizzone saw these educational inequalities as social injustices, and her urge to change them grew each day.

"I wanted to directly do something about the [inequalities and injustices] rather than just reading about it or bemoan the situation," Rizzone said. "So I applied to TFA."

After Rizzone was accepted, TFA placed her in North Carolina. There, she taught high school science and coached a soccer team at a rural school.

After completing her two years working for TFA, Rizzone attended medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is now a sports medicine physician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

She still has a classroom, but now it's a "classroom of patients, rather than high school students."

TFA has enabled her to see things differently, she said. She now has a "better understanding of the social obstacles that patients are fighting against," and believes she is "much more pragmatic" than many of her colleagues. TFA has made her a better doctor, she said.

Mary Wall, UB's recruitment associate for TFA, studied civil engineering and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University. She joined TFA right after college and taught high school math in Helena, a town on the Mississippi River.

The teaching experience allowed her to work one on one with students who didn't realize their own potential, she said. She remembers working with a student who consistently scored in the C range. The student was willing to work on math problems during lunch breaks, and by the end of the year, the student was scoring A's.

Wall found it fulfilling.

Christopher DiMatteo, a UB alumnus who majored in anthropology, currently teaches at KIPP Spirit College Preparatory through TFA.

He was part of the "Literature for Miniatures" club during college. The club's goal was to help college students volunteer in an inner-city school. He wanted to continue volunteering after college.

DiMatteo is also a grade-level chair, data captain and curriculum coordinator at his placement school.

"When you see a student finally get what you're teaching them, it makes your day," DiMatteo said. "It is also important to note that through TFA, I've made some incredible friendships that will last for the rest of my life."

He said though teaching can be stressful and difficult, being surrounded by amazing people makes it easier. It takes commitment and passion to be a good member of TFA, he said.

"If you are passionate about education equality and helping kids succeed, get involved," DiMatteo said. "Even if you aren't sure about staying in education for the long term, the experience you gain is valuable for anything that you'll want to do."

Rizzone said America will continue to have high crime and poverty rates compared to other developed countries around the world if more people don't stand up and do something to help.

"Our economy is held hostage by these facts," Rizzone said.

She encourages UB students to apply to one of the 50 regions across the nation that have TFA programs.

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