I scrolled through Penn’s career plans survey report. The first five results under the section for economics majors read “Financial Analyst, Marketing Analyst, Finance Analyst, Analyst, Database Analyst” (Really, you can go and look for yourself). A lump hardened in my throat. It was the summer before my junior year, and I was convinced that a quantitative major was the credential that would unlock the world for me.
You can imagine my disappointment when I realized that those horrible problem sets were all for naught, that the only reward they seemed to lead to was an extremely vague and boring-sounding title at a company I had never heard of. My discovery was unsettling and a little humbling, but ultimately set me on the right track.
The next few months forced me to reflect on what work was most meaningful to me. All the while, a more daunting question loomed over me: What did I want to get out of a career and, ultimately, out of life?
The first question was relatively easy to answer. I found my niche in the Political Science Department. I’m academically inclined; I love to read and think about big problems in my city, my country, my world. But the times when I’m truly engaged — when I feel that I’m truly at my best — are when I immerse myself into those problems directly.
My freshman and sophomore years at Penn, I spent a day a week volunteering at LIFT-Philadelphia, a community resource center where I met one-on-one with members looking for a helping hand out of poverty. I taught them how to build resumes and draft cover letters, to navigate the internet and file tax returns and to prepare for job interviews and find the nearest soup kitchen.
In return, they told me their stories. Immigrants — doctors and engineers in their countries of origin — working at Dunkin’ Donuts because their advanced degrees are worthless here. Mothers raising their sons to resist the gravitational pull of the streets. Homeless men with dreams of one day going to college or starting their own businesses.
The relationships I built at LIFT made me a part of the Philadelphia community — not just the Penn bubble. They made me deeply invested in the success of the city I love, sensitive to the sting of its crushing failures and to the rush of its exhilarating triumphs. They taught me that I can only hope to understand and solve our nation’s most pressing problems by feeling their human impact and that I should pursue those solutions against all odds.
I was inspired to do, not to analyze. During my junior year, the answer to my second big question began to crystallize. LIFT unfortunately had to close its Philadelphia office, so I began tutoring at a juvenile prison in North Philadelphia. I never had any particular desire to work with kids, but once I started, I found that they brought a whole different kind of energy to the table — and I fed off of it.
At the same time, one of my close friends who had since graduated from Penn glowed with pride as she reported back to me about her sixth graders in Memphis. She had joined Teach for America in 2014 and encouraged me to apply. I knew of the program and that it had produced many of today’s brightest minds and activists including DeRay Mckesson, Brittany Packnett and Clint Smith. Once I did more homework, I found that it was a great fit for me.
Teaching, particularly in underserved communities, is a high-stakes job. It’s a responsibility that most college graduates won’t be trusted with in their first year out of school, a challenge I actively sought. I was attracted to Teach for America’s vision that change starts with human connections and its willingness to have tough, candid conversations about complex problems.
While many corps members prefer to be placed in their hometowns they share an attachment with, as a lifelong East Coast city kid, I looked at Teach for America as an opportunity to explore a different part of the country. I chose to send myself to rural Arkansas, where I look forward to teaching high school math, spending some time in church and sampling the barbecue.
Teach for America isn’t for everyone. The work is too important for it to be a “plan B” or a stepping stone to more glamorous and lucrative endeavors. But if you can’t wait to make an impact from day one of your career and you’re serious about building strong, sustainable and equitable communities across this nation, the corps may be right for you.
JOE SAGEMAN is a College senior from Rockville, Md., studying political science and a 2017 Teach for America-Arkansas corps member.