It was a watermelon picnic where Katie Rigby connected with InterVarsity as a new freshman at Wake Forest University. And it was a small group InterVarsity Bible study that she led as a sophomore that awakened her passion for social justice. After her sophomore year she joined her InterVarsity staff leaders on a mission trip to New York City. “That’s where I really started learning about peoples’ experiences and what was working and what wasn’t,” she said.
Katie served as the chapter’s service coordinator her senior year. She helped connect chapter members with local service opportunities and organized the spring break service mission. As she prepared to graduate, she knew she was looking for a job that offered more than a paycheck.
“I was looking for something that was social justice oriented, connecting what I had done in college with a real life job, working to eradicate injustices I had seen taking place,” she said. “The mission of Teach For America seemed to fit with what I wanted to do, so I applied.”
ONLY THE BEST
In the tradition of the Peace Corps and Americorps, Teach For America is mobilizing thousands of college graduates to personally invest two years of their lives to help eradicate the educational achievement gap in low income community schools and then, as alumni, commit their lives to expanding educational opportunity. Many InterVarsity students like Katie have accepted the Teach For America’s challenge.
Founded just 18 years ago, Teach For America recruits top college graduates and professionals of all academic majors and career backgrounds. They teach in urban and rural districts where students are at risk because of systemic inequities. Teach For America is founded on the belief that educational inequity is America’s most serious social justice issue. Not just anyone can be a Teach For America recruit. They must have an average 2.5 GPA plus a record of achievement, leadership, and perseverance.
A little over a year ago Teach For America completed a study of incoming corps members, as their teachers are called. “Nearly 50 percent of the teachers identified themselves as people of faith, and were involved in faith-based organizations or attended a place of worship,” said Brooke Flowers, who now holds the position of Director of Faith Based Outreach. “Of those, 80 percent said that they joined Teach For America specifically because it gave them an opportunity to live out their faith.” She added that almost 100 of the members of that corps class were InterVarsity alumni.
A NATURAL CONNECTION
“This seems a wonderful indicator of how our alumni are moving into challenging places, combining their faith and their education in order to bring about change,” said Scott Bessenecker, InterVarsity’s director of Global Projects. “Teach For America is a secular organization. That they should see 100 InterVarsity alumni join their organization this last year speaks loudly to the power of our ministry to propel students into places that most people work very hard to avoid, and recognizes the importance of our historic commitments to multi-ethnicity and to urban projects.”
This summer another 65 students with InterVarsity connections are training with Teach For America and preparing for the start of classes in the fall. Even though Teach For America is not a religious organization, it’s focusing more and more of its outreach towards the faith community and faith-based organizations such as InterVarsity. “We’re looking for outstanding leaders, and we’re finding those leaders in the faith community,” Brooke said.
A recent story in U.S. News and World Report said that Teach For America “has assumed the allure of the Rhodes Scholarship program, in essence becoming the postgraduate program of choice for the elite of America’s top universities.” Thomas Friedman also gave kudos to Teach For America in a New York Times column. The Urban Institute released a study which found that Teach For America teachers are generally more effective teachers than more experienced colleagues and a recent Business Week article also praised the organization for its success.
A PLACE TO CHANGE THE WORLD
As Brooke Flowers talks with InterVarsity students, and others for whom faith is a priority, she tells them that she grew more in her faith while she taught as a second grade teacher in Atlanta than she would have grown attending divinity school, as she had planned.
“I thought that I had to go to divinity school to grow in my faith but God did not call me there,” she said. “Instead I learned that I could be the hands and feet of God through service in these communities. God revealed himself to me between the hours of seven p.m. and five p.m. every day, in ways that I wouldn’t believe.”
After Katie Rigby was accepted by Teach For America she ended up teaching Earth Science at Eastway Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was not an easy job, but she believed strongly that God wanted her there because the students deserved committed teachers. “If I didn’t have the biblical basis to be there, then I would have been long gone,” she said. “There were some days when that was all I had to hold on to, that first year was pretty rough.”
After her Teach For America service was over Katie joined the teaching staff at KIPP WAYS Academy in Atlanta. KIPP WAYS stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, West Atlanta Young Scholars. The academy is part of a network of charter schools operating in low-income rural and urban communities. She says the school is a good fit for her, just as Teach For America was, doing the kind of work she envisioned when she was an InterVarsity student learning about God’s passion for justice.
Read more: Chad Riley joined Teach for America after graduation from DePauw University in 2005. He was interviewed on InterVarsity’s website for students, StudentSoul.org.
Photo: Katie Rigby with students