When I think about my time at UH, I think about a whirlwind of incredible experiences: taking the dreaded Human Situation class, actually passing said class, spending too much Cougar Cash at Starbucks and McAlisters and meeting many amazing people that have impacted my life. But I was constantly plagued with that one question we all ponder: What in the world am I going to do when I graduate?
Although this question is the quickest way to get any senior’s heart pounding and palms sweating, there’s several ways I could answer. I could put the “real world” off for a bit longer and apply to graduate school; I could apply to law school and hope all the awful rumors about it are not true; I could take a year off and let fate intervene — I have choices.
But the question of what I could do after graduation actually has a second part – what should I do? As I turned each choice over in my head, none of them felt quite right.
The truth is, as a first-generation college student with a college degree, I now have access to opportunities and skills that many kids growing up like me do not. I think of my mother whose ambitions were just as great as mine — and her intelligence often greater — who never had the experience of a quality education because she had to drop out of school in order to pay her bills and buy groceries.
My mother made incredible sacrifices to get me where I am. I know that if just a few things were different — a different teacher, a different group of friends — I might not be a UH student.
In this way, my story is not unique. Too many kids growing up in diverse communities across the country face tremendous barriers as they strive to imagine their own bright futures.
For students growing up in our lowest-income communities, just 6 percent will graduate from college by the time they’re 25. Aware of the disparities that exist, I know that I can use my experiences to help students imagine an ambitious future defined by them.
I applied to Teach For America because I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. I didn’t have an academic scholarship, study abroad summer experience and receive a compensated room and board because I was exclusively entitled to them; I had all that because I was born into the resources and support I needed to secure them.
When I think about what I can and should do with my privilege, working with kids who deserve just as much and often get so much less is the answer that fits.
I didn’t decide to teach because I think I’m going to be a hero. This work will be incredibly challenging and humbling, and I will have to push myself harder than I ever have to give my students the education they deserve.
I will need to work in close partnership with the parents, teachers and community members who have been working towards justice and equity long before I arrived. But I don’t want a job that lets me turn a blind eye to the injustice kids face every day.
I want one that forces me to look injustice in the face and fight it with all my heart. I want one that holds me accountable for the injustices that plague our communities – because, although I did not create them, I’d still bear responsibility if I chose not to address them.
As I become a Teach For America corps member after graduation, I’ll be joining a network of more than 47,000 people working relentlessly to make access to opportunity equitable. It’s a network of leaders vastly diverse in background and experience, working across sectors to create change.
But we are all united around the fundamental belief that a quality education is not a privilege — it is a right. We can fight to ensure all students get to enjoy that right.
As you think about what in the world you’re going to do after you leave here, I hope you’ll join us.
Sarah Merritt is a sociology and political science senior and may be reached at [email protected].