Pursuing the American Dream in the City of Angels

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 17 2012

Better late than never! (I had meant to apply to Teach For America 2 years ago)

How fitting...I draw just like the elementary school students I'll be teaching.

Basking in the obnoxiously perfect Southern California weather, I stopped by UCLA’s main commencement ceremony on Friday…and couldn’t help but think of my own college graduation at UCLA 2 years ago.  Back when it was June 11, 2010: I sat in one of those oh-so-elite seats reserved for graduating seniors, and listened to those oh-so-cheesy speeches about following your heart, the 2010 version of the “YOLO” motto, and yadda yadda yadda.  Eh, whatever, I thought.  Sure, I wasn’t exactly “pursuing my dreams” (I wanted to be a teacher) but I couldn’t complain: I had a to-die-for job lined up after graduation that allowed me to continue being on the college campus I had grown to love so much and spend time with my friends who were still around at UCLA or in the LA area.  Ok, so those were slightly selfish reasons, but hey, I told myself I would still be making a difference by advising college students as part of my job, and besides, college is ultimately where all K-12 teachers want their students to head anyway.  So I never ended up applying to Teach For America.  Or any traditional graduate programs in teaching.

Fast forward 2 years.

February 10, 2012:  On a whim, I frantically scrambled (on the day it was due) to both start and finish my application to Teach For America (and praying I would get at least a phone interview, if not also an in-person interview).   So  I was already 2 years into my budding career as a higher education administrator, and all my colleagues and friends were pretty much expecting me to land a job as a mid-level university administrator somewhere after I moved on from my entry-level position at UCLA.  So what in the world was I thinking??  I had even completed a 1-year master’s program in higher education administration right after I finished undergrad.  I had invested so much time, energy, money…why would I want to give all that up to pursue something that I basically had to “start all over” for?

Umm…to follow my heart?   Ohhh, right.  People still do that with the job market these days, right?  Right??

Well, that was the hard part.  It wasn’t so clear cut and dry; it’s not like I hated my job as an administrator at UCLA.   I loved, for instance, the relationship-building part of my job, and I loved the time I got to spend with my college students, seeing them grow throughout the school year into this country’s next generation of leaders.  I loved seeing some of my coworkers day-to-day as well as my two incredibly supportive supervisors.

Not to mention…I had my own office, my own work cell phone and office phone, flexible work hours, constant cash and non-cash bonuses, and a lot of damn good perks that rivaled those of Corporate America (heck, housing was even covered as part of my compensation package).  Granted, there were days I rolled my eyes at having to spend precious time in pointless two-hour meetings where most of my colleagues (myself included) were Facebook’ing away on our phones the whole time anyway.  But overall, I truly enjoyed my job.  I definitely plan to keep in touch with some of my amazing ex-coworkers, and I gained so much unparalleled experiences during my time as a UCLA administrator (I have professional experience in the field of higher education, and college is what I’m ultimately pushing my future K-12 students toward!).

So why did I decide to re-pursue what I wanted to do right after college 2 years ago?  Why teaching?   Because the decision wasn’t about leaving something I hated to do something I loved.  It wasn’t “good vs bad” … it was “good vs great.”  Because I knew deep down that was what I wanted to do.  What I was meant to do.   I could write a novel about all the different reasons, but honestly, the main reason is I would not be doing justice to my life experiences if I did anything else.  Growing up in poverty in both China and America, I’ve seen firsthand how much of an impact good teachers can make on a child struggling to beat the odds of a statistically predicted educational and life trajectory.  I found a way out of poverty through my education, and was able to realize the American Dream.  Now I want to be that teacher for my future students.   Not to mention how much I love working with kids, seeing their faces light up with smiles, my own fascinating for the subjects I learned in grade school and incessant passion for learning, and my never-ending nostalgia for everything related to the childhood I miss so much, from Playdoh to playground monkey bars.

Granted, Teach For America isn’t the only way I could’ve started on the teaching journey, but it’s the most realistic for me considering my life circumstances right now.  Having graduated now from both undergrad and grad (and a lighter wallet), and considering how many traditional-track teachers are finding it hard to find jobs (or getting laid off even after being tenured), the government-supported AmeriCorps program Teach For America = dream come true.   Also, the more I learned about Teach For America, the more I realized how powerful and effective of an organization it really is; I’m now a believer (amen!) in the famous Teaching As Leadership framework, which isn’t explicitly expressed in most traditional teaching graduate programs.  And yes, when I applied I was fully aware of all the horror stories of corps members leaving the program early on due to a million reasons, but I was–and am–NOT fazed.  I am willing to work relentlessly to do my part in ending educational inequity in America.

YOLO.  It’s time to start [re]chasing my dreams in life.  I’m so glad I stopped by the Class 0f 2012 UCLA commencement ceremony on Friday; it reminded me why I applied to Teach For America this year at the last-minute (quite literally), even admist all the uncertainty of my career change.  I decided it was time to follow my heart.  And I couldn’t be more grateful: not only did I advance straight to the final interview stage and was ultimately accepted into [the highly selective] Teach For America on the last deadline date, I was placed in my first choice region (Los Angeles) and first choice grade level (elementary).  Also, I passed all my California teacher credentialing exams (CSET, CBEST, Constitution) so I’ve secured my place in the 2012 corps vs having to defer to 2013.  So.damn.grateful.

I want to conclude this blog post with the words of this year’s UCLA commencement speaker Jessica Jackley (co-founder of the poverty-fighting microfinance organization Kiva)…and unlike 2 years ago when I actually graduated…this time…I guess I took the cliched advice to heart. :)

Don’t let good opportunities take the place of great ones. Don’t pursue a path that doesn’t let you follow your dreams. Figure out what you love, and fun as fast as you can towards it.

Ok, back to packing!  I’m so excited for the start of my Teach For America journey this summer with Induction and Institute…just two more days!

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    The journey of this new teacher following his dream of helping kids reach theirs.

    Los Angeles
    Elementary School
    Special Education

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