Students Defer After-College Plans to Teach For America

“I just want to give back to the community,” said Lindsey R. Sheehan ’07, describing her plans to teach high school math for the next two years.

Sheehan is one of many MIT students who have chosen to join Teach for America, a program that allows college graduates to teach elementary, middle, and high school students from low-income communities. Founded in 1990 as part of a Princeton University senior’s thesis, Teach for America currently has more than 4,400 corps members who teach roughly 375,000 students each year.

Seniors who apply and are accepted into Teach for America work in elementary, middle, or high schools for two years and can list preferences as to where they want to teach, according to Emily Del Pino, regional communications director for Teach For America. Applicants can also specify fields that they would like to teach in, which “run the gamut” from math and science to history, literature, and language, Del Pino said.

Sheehan, who will be teaching in New Orleans, said she chose the area because she had done research there through an MIT Environmental Engineering program. “I thought it was a great opportunity to help out the region,” she said.

Sheehan will be adding to MIT’s strong history with Teach for America. As described by Del Pino, MIT participated in the first corps group in 1990, has 18 corps alumni, and eight graduates from MIT are currently teaching across the United States. In the last four years alone, 47 MIT graduates have applied to the corps.

“People come away thinking it is an incredibly rewarding experience,” said Kinnari Chandriani, Teach For America recruitment director for MIT and a Teach for America alumna herself. “It’s challenging in so many ways.”

Coming from a bioengineering background, Chandriani said it was amazing when students could experience hands-on science. “I came away feeling like I had made a difference for these students,” Chandriani said.

Despite the positive aspects, applicants have been consistently concerned about Teach for America disrupting their career plans, and Sheehan was no exception. “I was scared at first that I would lose out on all these great opportunities that MIT has provided me,” she said. “But as I learned more about it, I realized Teach for America really opened up many more opportunities.”

Chandriani, who spoke with Sheehan about joining Teach for America, said that the program was a great option for any career path.

“[Alumni] come away with so many skills that are very helpful in a academic environment,” she said. With “leadership skills and speaking skills … employers really appreciate that you have real experience.”

Those points were reiterated by Mala L. Radhakrishnan G, a corps alumna who taught freshman integrated science in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It was amazing to see how excited [the students] got,” she said. “It was cool to know I played a role in their future.”

As for her career, Radhakrishnan thought teaching gave her “practical skills,” that were invaluable for her future. “The program really made my application stand out,” she said.

Although Radhakrishnan was applying to graduate schools during her time teaching, Teach for America has tried to make the process easier for future members. The program has now partnered with graduate schools, medical schools, and corporations to offer deferrals for corps members. MIT Sloan School and MIT’s Department of Chemistry, for example, both offer deferrals for Teach for America participants. Late last year, Google announced their support of Teach for America deferrals, as did JPMorgan and a handful of other companies.

Chandriani also recruits from “top science schools” such as the California Institute of Technology, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Case Western Reserve University and said that MIT stood out in her recruiting. “I found that except for just a handful, nearly everyone was teaching in middle or high school, math or science,” she said.

What really matters though, said Chandriani, was the opportunity to help underprivileged kids.

By neglecting less fortunate students, we’re “closing off futures for kids [who] aren’t getting the same types of opportunities and choices in life as their peers,” she said. “With the background MIT students are coming from … graduates have the opportunity to open doors for students.”

The deadline for Class of 2007 graduates to apply to Teach for America ( is Feb. 18.