Although she has never been a teacher, Wendy Kopp has inspired thousands of college graduates to take to the classrooms and fix what she calls the country’s “greatest social injustice.”
In speech at the School of Media and Public Affairs Wednesday, Kopp, the CEO and founder of Teach for America, emphasized the integral role college students have played in improving the nation’s public school system.
“Your idealism and naiveté are invaluable,” Kopp said, addressing the crowd of mostly GW students. “You are uniquely qualified to tackle our country’s most deeply entrenched social issue.”
Kopp developed the idea for Teach for America – an organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in low-income areas – during her senior year at Princeton University. She said the inspiration stemmed from her search for a career with significant social responsibilities.
“I thought, ‘Why aren’t college students being as aggressively recruited to teach as they are to work at a corporation?'” she said.
The first plans were sketched in her undergraduate thesis. Soon after graduation, Kopp began to promote her idea in earnest, sending letters to business executives across the nation that yielded little response. Finally, after receiving a $500,000 grant from Texas businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, she and her small staff launched the organization.
Kopp pointed to her own youthful idealism as one of the main reasons for Teach for America’s initial success.
“I had no idea it was a crazy idea,” she said.
Teach for America has greatly expanded in size and scope since 1990, when a corps of 500 graduates from more than 2,500 applicants were selected. This year, there are more than 5,000 members teaching in 26 regions across the country.
Over the years, many GW graduates have seized the opportunity to become part of the program.
“Teach for America has been recruiting at GW since 1991 and we’ve had more than 200 Colonials join the corps since then,” said Colleen Fisher, former campus campaign coordinator for Teach for America’s GW branch.
This year, 130 GW students have applied to the program, an almost 300 percent increase from last year. Still, Fisher and others said they hope to recruit at least 80 more applicants before the final deadline on Feb. 15.
“Our goal is 210 applicants this year,” said Thomas Clark, a Teach for America recruitment director. Clark has been meeting with GW seniors interested in the program since fall 2007, and he said the GW candidates had made a positive impression on him.
“GW students are similar to the people we want to have in our organization,” he said. “They possess a high level of enthusiasm, which will definitely be essential in the classroom.”
Ian Donlon, a senior who recently applied to the program, said he wanted a chance to “give back.”
“One of the problems with our generation today is that we expect people to do everything for us,” he said. “This is a chance for me to perform a great public service.”
The Pi Beta Phi fraternity for women sponsored the event. The women’s fraternity arranged for Kopp to speak in honor of its return to GW’s campus.
Sophomore Jen Sansone, Pi Beta Phi’s vice president of member development, said she hoped Kopp’s speech on campus would inspire listeners.
Kopp said she felt an increasing sense of urgency to turn Teach for America into an education revolution.
“We can build an absolutely unstoppable movement,” she said. “It’s a question of whether enough of our future leaders will step up and say, ‘We can change this.'”