The eight Mercer graduates who have been named to highly selective service programs gathered at the University Center recently, including: Rizza Ibanez, foreground, will be joining the Peace Corps, along with the seven students who will be joining Teach For America, left to right, Farley Burks, Elizabeth Carson, Sydney Nehrig, Jamie Alongi, Meghan Lasseter, Whitney Davidson and Akeem Anderson.
Eight Mercer University graduates have been selected to participate in two highly selective national and international service programs upon graduation on May 10. Rizza Ibanez, of Milledgeville, Ga., will enter the Peace Corps, while seven other members of the class of 2008 will participate in Teach For America, the rigorous and nationally competitive program that places top college graduates in low-income schools across the nation.
Entering the Teach For America program are Akeem Anderson, of Columbus, Ga.; Farley Burks, of Bowling Green, Ky.; Jamie Alongi, of Woodstock, Ga.; Whitney Davidson, of Alexander City, Ala.; Sydney Nehrig, of Tampa, Fla.; and Meghan Lasseter and Elizabeth Carson, both of Peachtree City, Ga.
The opportunity to be in service to others and the challenges of doing so in the face of poverty or poor conditions were driving factors for all the students when deciding to apply to the selective programs.
“Despite 27 months of physical, emotional, and intellectual challenges, the Peace Corps will help satisfy my desire to serve others, my interest in cross-cultural experiences, and my eagerness to mature by facing these challenges,” said Ibanez. “I go to help others in a foreign land knowing that I will be forever changed.”
The Spanish major expects to be assigned to Africa and to work in an area of health care, but she will not know for sure until she receives her final paperwork. “The Peace Corps stresses patience and flexibility,” she said of the application process.
“Rizza has a genuine interest in wanting to improve the human condition and the Peace Corps will be a great way for her to do that,” said David Aiello, assistant professor of Biology, and Ibanez’s research advisor. “She has a very outward looking view of the world, the type of view that we try to instill in our students while they are here, and she’s exploring that to its fullest potential with this appointment in the Peace Corps.”
Established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy Jr., the Peace Corps is an independent federal agency designed to provide trained workers needed in developing nations. Since 1961, almost 190,000 Peace Corps volunteers have provided their skills and talents to other nations while also promoting a better understanding between Americans and the people of the 139 countries where they have served. To be considered for the rigorous volunteer service program, applicants must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age and agree to a 27-month commitment. Each year, more than 12,000 people apply to be volunteers with the Peace Corps, with 4,000 accepted into the program. There are currently more than 8,000 Peace Corp volunteers serving abroad, including five Mercer alumni.
Teach For America encourages applicants from all backgrounds and educational experiences, not just education majors. The program seeks applicants who have strong academic and leadership backgrounds and it recruits heavily from the top undergraduate institutions in the nation. In 2007, Teach For America accepted only 21 percent of applicants from a pool or more than 18,000, with an average undergraduate GPA of 3.6 and more than 95 percent having held leadership positions while in college.
“Teach For America is one of the best opportunities for Mercer graduates to pursue as a way of extending their involvement in service learning,” said Stephen R. Brown, director of Career Services at Mercer. “The fact that we have seven students serving this year speaks to the commitment and desire our graduates have for making a difference in their world. By the time these students have completed their service with Teach for America, they will be ready to make an even greater impact on society.”
Lagra Newman, a recruitment director of Teach For America, said her organization was thrilled to have so many graduates from Mercer. “We had a record number of applications this year and these individuals represent the excellence and leadership we have come to expect from Mercer graduates,” she said. “As a recruitment director for several schools in Georgia, I have been thoroughly impressed with the quality of the candidates from Mercer. The extensive amount of leaders and academic achievers committed to civic engagement at Mercer speaks volumes about the quality of the student body. Teach For America looks at this year as the tipping point of even greater interest and involvement in our movement from Mercer students in the years to come.”
The Mercer graduates entering the Teach For America program have already been assigned to their regions and will learn their individual assignments later in the summer, as they complete coursework in preparation to teach next fall.
“My motivation for applying for Teach For America is very simple: I don’t believe a child’s zip code should determine her academic opportunities,” said Lasseter, who will teach elementary school in the Mississippi Delta. “I hope that the training this summer will prepare me to be a highly-effective teacher, and I look forward to moving to a part of the country that is almost entirely foreign to me, one rich in history and diverse in culture.”
The philosophy and French double major added, “I was drawn to Teach For America for the unique opportunity it provides: the chance to immediately work to correct one of the greatest social and moral issues in the country. Few other organizations offer new graduates such invaluable experience.”
Davidson, who was a Program in Leadership and Service major, will teach special education in the Mississippi Delta. She cited the fight for educational opportunity as a big part of her motivation.
“I wholeheartedly believe that fighting educational inequity is my generation’s battle,” she said. “It is a tragedy that negatively impacts not only children across the country, but also our entire society and its future. I am incredibly excited about stepping onto the front lines and providing equal education opportunities for all children.”
It was Nehrig’s experiences at Mercer that drew her to the nationally noted service program. “While at Mercer, through tutoring and working in the Macon community, I realized the vast inequity that exists in America’s public education system,” said the anthropology major, who will teach in an elementary school in Charlotte, N.C. “I know that our generation can stop the cycle of poverty, and I wanted to do something to help these children who so often have no one working on their behalf.”
Alongi, who will also teach in Charlotte, shares those feelings. “I am very excited for the opportunity to make positive changes in children’s lives,” the sociology major said. “My family has always instilled an ethic of service in me, and I feel like Teach For America is a great way to serve for my first two years after college.”
Burks has been assigned to Atlanta, teaching in middle school language arts. “This is a great opportunity for me, being an education major, to serve in an area where strong teachers are desperately needed.”
She hopes to instill in her students lessons that will help them throughout their life. “Through this program, I hope to show teens the value of hard work and goals. I want to teach them that school is important and that they can be anything they want to be. I know this will be a great learning experience for me, and I’m not expecting it to be easy. But, I’m excited about the challenges.”
Anderson, a political science major and the 2007-2008 Student Government Association president, will be teaching English to middle and high school students in New Orleans. He said it is his duty to help.
“I joined Teach For America because I decided, long ago, that I wanted to give back to society,” Anderson said. “After I leave this earth, I want it to be said that I’ve given all that I could to make our society better than it was when I came into it. I see Teach For America as a wonderful opportunity to address one of the most fundamental problems with our current society - the unequal education system in America -- and I am proud to join this fight.”
Carson, who was a music and communications double major, will teach elementary school for the Houston, Texas, Independent School District. She is excited about the opportunity to serve children in the urban district.
“When I was looking for a job after college, I wanted a career where I felt like I could make a difference. I cannot think of a better way to do that than through Teach For America,” she said. “Teach For America has already opened my eyes even further to the educational inequality in our country, and I am hoping to aid in the efforts to bridge that gap. Though I am nervous about the challenge ahead, I just keep thinking about my future students and what I can give them.”