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Shannon Held: Aspiring Education Reformer

On the list of many things that Shannon Held is passionate about, education is at the very top. A senior English Fiction major at Pitt, Shannon would love to eventually teach at the middle school level. When speaking to Shannon about education, as well as the Teach For America organization for which she vigorously recruits as its Campus Campaign Coordinator, it is easy to see the passion in her eyes for fixing a system that is in need of some TLC.

HC: What exactly is Teach For America?
Shannon Held: Teach For America, or TFA, is an organization that recruits college seniors to go and work in an area of the United States that’s being affected by the educational achievement gap. We recruit the top leaders from all universities to go teach in a school district that’s really low-performing.

HC: What benefits do these students get from teaching for TFA?
SH: There are tons of benefits! In most cases you go to grad school for free, you get a full salary and full benefits, an AmeriCorps stipend.

HC: Can any major do it? And for how long do you stay?
SH: Any major can do this because you go through a full summer of training prior to teaching, and you stay for two years once you start at a school. You also get to choose what you want to teach, where you want to teach, and what age group you want to teach.

HC: What kind of places can you go to?
SH: There are programs all over the United States, but last year Pitt students went to Dallas, Detroit, Charlotte, Chicago, Las Vegas, and Atlanta, among other cities.

HC: How hard is it to get accepted to TFA?
SH: There is an 11% acceptance rate nationally.

HC: What do you do for TFA right now? You’re still a student, so you can’t actually teach for them right?
SH: Right. Right now I’m the Campus Campaign Coordinator, so I’m one of three people in charge of recruitment for the university. Pitt is actually one of the top contributors to TFA, so we’re trying to send at least 40 Pitt students this coming year, five more than our 35 of last year. I have one-on-one meetings with qualified seniors and manage a team of interns to do all of the marketing. We do classroom and student organization presentations.

HC: I also noticed that you post plenty of facebook statuses about it.
SH: Yeah, and I lose a TON of facebook friends.

HC: Do you want to eventually teach for them?
SH: Yes, I’m actually applying this Friday!

HC: Why is education so important to you?
SH: Well, in the United States, there are 16 million children living underneath the poverty line and only 8% of them will go on to graduate college by the age of 24. There’s also a huge literacy gap, and so many other things that students in low-performing school districts just aren’t achieving. For example, the average student in a low-performing school district graduates high school with an eighth grade skill level, and 58% of black fourth-graders in these schools are functionally illiterate.

HC: And what exactly qualifies as a low-performing school district?
SH: Usually it’s a title one school, which means it receives the most funding possible from the government. It can also be kind of unofficially categorized by high turnover of teachers, low graduation rates, and not passing the No Child Left Behind requirements.

HC: Do you do anything else with education at Pitt?
SH: Actually yes! I just started a chapter of Students For Education Reform at Pitt! We just got a charter about two weeks ago and I just finished the constitution so we’ll be ready to go in about a week. So if people are interested in the values of TFA, this would be a great club to join. It materialized those values on our campus.

HC: That’s so awesome! What kind of things will Students For Education Reform be doing?
SH: Basically we’ll just be raising awareness of the achievement gap. We research and discuss local and federal education policy, and see what kind of things Congressmen and administrators are doing to close the achievement gap. So we’ll be hosting events on campus to make people more aware of this injustice. The goal is to increase what’s called the “human capital pipeline,” which basically means that all people of every career, such as law, education, and corporate America, will be aware of the problems and have the education gap at the back of their minds, and they’ll work towards closing it in some way, in some aspect of society.

Shannon’s dream of working toward closing the educational achievement gap to me seemed initially to be one that was idealistic and unattainable, but after talking to her about Teach For America, I realized that if we all put our heads together, it’s something that can certainly happen in our lifetime. So if you’re interested in teaching or just helping others, get involved with one of her two organizations! Shannon will be happy to meet you, and, you never know, it might change your life. It certainly seems like it has changed Shannon’s.

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