Alumni Continue Lasallian Mission with Teach for America

The highly competitive program consistently recruits Jaspers to lead a nationwide educational revolution in low-income communities.

At Manhattan, our Lasallian heritage constitutes our perspective on education and teaching as a powerful mechanism of change. Many alumni, inspired by the life of Saint John Baptist de La Salle, choose to continue the mission with Teach for America (TFA).

With the belief that education is a critical path to greater equity, TFA recruits top college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools, where they gain experience and earn certification.

TFA is a highly competitive program, with an acceptance rate averaging below 15 percent. But Manhattan College graduates consistently find success, becoming agents of change nationwide.

Metropolitan Arizona

TFA alumna Elizabeth Harris ’08 served as a 10th-grade English teacher at Agua Fria, an ethnically diverse high school in Avondale, Ariz. The history and English major simultaneously earned her master’s degree from Arizona State University.

It was precisely the opportunity she had hoped for. As a college senior majoring in English and history, she was unsure of her next move.

“I thought a lot about going into a graduate program, but I always knew that there was so much that I still had not experienced, so many other communities out there that I wanted to learn about across the U.S.”

It was her academic advisers, Jeff Horn, professor and chair of the history department, and Jeffrey Myers, Ph.D., associate professor of English, who recommended TFA.

“All I had to do was read about and explore the program, and I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do after graduation,” she says, adding that her advisers, along with Rocco Marinaccio, Ph.D., associate professor of English, were happy to assist her throughout the lengthy application process, from writing recommendations to helping her prepare for the interview.

Her first year was full of challenges. Some of her classes included 36 students, which outnumbered available desks or books.

“The experience opened my eyes to what the achievement gap looks and sounds like,” Harris says.

Although it was a difficult decision to leave Phoenix, she ultimately she decided to move back to the East Coast where she took a position with Achievement First Brooklyn High School. Nearly four years later, she serves as the 11th-grade English teacher as well as the writing department chair.

“TFA was life changing,” she says. “The greatest part about the experience is that I found out that I loved to teach.”

Coastal Louisiana

The silver screen wasn’t enough for TFA 2012 Corps member Philip Dorn ’10 who found immediate success in Los Angeles as a director’s assistant for 21 Laps Entertainment and Fox Studio productions following graduation. Although the job was both exciting and rewarding, after a year and a half, Dorn found himself in the midst of what he calls “an existential crisis.”

“I realized that I wanted to help people and create a lasting impact,” Dorn says. He decided to get involved locally, helping disadvantage youth in East L.A., and ultimately decided to apply to TFA.

Currently, Dorn serves as a social studies teacher for grades 4-6 at ENCORE Academy, a charter school in New Orleans. As he finishes up his first full year as a Corps member, he hopes to expand his skillset by obtaining a master’s or Ph.D. with the goal of opening his own school in the future.

“It feels great to be part of a collective that’s achieving amazing things by inspiring young, forward-thinking leaders,” he says. “I love my classes. I wake up every day excited to go to work.”

Northern New Jersey

Not every recent graduate is ready to take on the demands of TFA. Elizabeth Monahan ’10 didn’t give up when her initial application was rejected. 

She elected to gain experience through the Citizen Schools National Teaching Fellowship in Boston, where she served as a project coordinator in the mornings and taught middle school in the afternoon. With her newfound training, she was accepted as a TFA 2012 Corps member and relocated to Newark, N.J.

Today she is a special education social studies teacher at West Side High School.

“I love being able to build relationships with kids. They are the whole reason I get up and go to work in the morning,” says Monahan, who hopes to continue her role as an educator in the future. “Even if I have a bad day, at least one kid makes me smile every single day and that’s an awesome job to have.”

Mississippi Delta

2012 Corps member Michael Bienkowski ’12 is currently the manager for teacher leadership development in Greenwood, Miss. In this role, he oversees 28 teachers in the region, observing classrooms and working with each one individually to ensure that they are becoming the best teacher possible.

Additionally, he leads discussions with fellow staff members regarding noticeable classroom trends across Mississippi and works toward solutions. He also selects new Corps and welcomes new teachers into the region.

Bienkowski earned the promotion after a full year of teaching 10th-grade English in Greenwood, Miss.

He first heard about TFA while taking Contemporary American Literature with Marinaccio, when his classmate, Harris, was accepted to the program. The English major and education minor had always planned on teaching English after college, and was really interested in TFA because of the opportunity to become certified while gaining valuable teaching experience.

In the future, Bienkowski hopes to return to the front of the classroom full time.

“There is something truly exhilarating about watching a kid learn something for the first time, or when the light bulb goes on in their head and you know they just got it,” he says. “Nothing beats that.”

By Sarah Schwartz