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There’s something you should know about me: I believe in superheroes.

When I was a kid, I used to rush home from school every day to catch the latest episode of the Super Friends — a cheesy superhero cartoon series from the ‘70s. Each week, Superman and his pals would foil the plot of an evil scientist, stop a rampaging monster or prevent an alien invasion. Watching those guys, I learned about trusting allies and standing up against injustice and inequality. What they didn’t teach me, though, was how to cope when evil took a different, less easily identifiable form.

As I grew up, my concrete world of good versus evil was shattered. It started when my father was first diagnosed with cancer. When the cancer metastasized to his bones and his brain, I was lost and powerless. And as my family fought its war against the disease, I witnessed my country enter a war on terror. As a millennial, I was taught that the 21st century would be prosperous and vibrant. Reality felt quite different.

As I struggled, my father made my own survival possible. Despite his ongoing battle against cancer, he taught me the importance of standing for something greater than yourself, and that our capacity for change is only as great as our capacity to give. He taught me that love means giving everything you can for those around you, even if all you can give is loyalty or trust. Most importantly, he taught me the power of people and their capacity for transformational change, regardless of where they come from.

When my father left us, I knew I needed to live his values and his beliefs. This feeling stayed with me through my time as an undergraduate student in Washington. During that time I reached for every opportunity I could to live in my father’s example and serve my community as best I could. But when it came time to think about what would come next, I realized I had spent more time talking the talk than walking the walk.

When I was contacted by a Teach for America recruiter my senior year, I was skeptical of the organization. I’d heard critiques of the program, and I had never seen myself as a teacher. But I thought about how I could further live out my dad’s values — the best teacher I’d ever had.

Over the last three years, Teach for America has given me a chance to do for others what my father did for me — ignite a spark. Day to day, my work in the classroom was not only about academic skills and content knowledge, but also about instilling love and life. It was never about saving anyone, and I definitely never considered myself a superhero. Teaching is about playing your part in instilling the confidence and belief in someone else that they can be their own hero.

Looking at the challenges my students faced and the immense odds that were stacked against them, I arrived at the realization that great teaching alone will not solve the systemic challenges of poverty and racism, or address related issues like lack of adequate health care, nutrition, shelter and employment opportunities. So I enrolled as a public policy student at the University of Pennsylvania, the very same institution my father attended so many years before me. Like pieces of a puzzle fitting together, I’m using the lessons from my classroom experience to build the policies and systems that will work differently for our students and their communities. As a teacher, I spent every class period analyzing and adjusting to 35 ever-changing, high-stakes variables. This experience taught me about the breadth of issues that people face in our communities and the depth of injustice and inequity in this country.

The challenge of our generation will be to look beyond ourselves and for our future. Teach for America gave me the chance to do something I know would make my dad and this institution proud, the chance to walk the walk. I will carry with me those values and lessons for the rest of my life.

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