In just a couple of weeks, Stanford Stadium will be filled with some of our generation’s brightest future leaders celebrating all they’ve accomplished and all that is to come. There will be a palpable energy in the air as parents and friends heap praise and pride on the graduates. It’s a moment everyone who works hard for an education deserves — but one that too many will never experience.
For students growing up in our lowest-income communities, just 10 percent will graduate college by the time they’re 25. This isn’t because those students aren’t bright, motivated or talented. It’s because they lack access to the opportunities they deserve, based on uncontrollable factors like the numbers in their zip code and their parents’ paychecks. This is an unacceptable reality. But it’s one that we, as empowered students and alumni of Stanford, have the power to change. Commencement Day will see off graduates preparing to start all sorts of exciting careers, from law or medical school to jobs at top banks and consulting firms. These are all important gigs, and they come with enormous benefits and opportunities to make a difference. But there’s another impactful option, one that has the potential to shape the future more than any other job but also one that we too often overlook: teaching.
I came into Stanford as a human biology major with the intention of becoming a doctor or veterinarian. But as time went on, I started to grow tired of my pre-med coursework and on a whim took Robert Reich’s Ethics and Politics in Public Service course. For the first time in my life, I was encouraged to consider a career I had never given much thought to: education. Professor Reich talked a lot about the importance of working in education and said the words that would ultimately alter the course of my life: “Everyone deserves the same level of education that you had.”
The first time he said this, I didn’t really know what he was talking about. I had plenty of opportunities and resources in education growing up, and I naively assumed that almost everyone I met at Stanford had had a very similar experience. But the more I learned and reflected, the more I realized how privileged I had been growing up. I had everything I needed both at school and at home to get good grades, hone my smarts and skills and live a comfortable life. But that’s not the reality for so many kids growing up in poverty across the country.
Professor Reich had first become passionate about education as a Teach for America corps member. So I decided to follow in his footsteps. One week after graduation, I moved across the country to teach middle school science to high-need students in the South Bronx. There, everything changed.
In only a few weeks’ time, I had gone from living only for myself and making choices that mostly only impacted me to spending every day thinking about my kids and what they needed. To be honest, it’s a transition that was not easy to make, and I struggled to be the teacher they needed and deserved. However, I continued to persevere, waking up every morning knowing my kids were counting on me and that I couldn’t let them down. Over time, I found that when I engaged my students effectively, they became unstoppable. In my second year, my colleagues and I organized a grade-wide spelling bee. Before long, kids who normally resisted participation during class time were spotted practicing their words between bells. When we organized a trip to Washington, D.C. in conjunction with the Stanford in Washington program, we saw kids who had never left the South Bronx writing application essays, braving an interview process and participating in bake sales so they could have a shot at participating in this new educational experience. Years later, one student told me that he was planning to write about that D.C. trip in his college admissions essays.
As Stanford students and alumni, we are poised for success. We have a powerful and impressive network of connections. We have a degree that tells the world that we are capable of handling what it wants to throw at us. We also have a responsibility.
Many of us came to Stanford from upbringings that provided the stability and access we needed to get here. Many others got here through incredible hard work and an almost superhuman ability to overcome obstacles. Whatever side of the experience spectrum we fall on, we can all agree that the deck is stacked. Zip code, income bracket and skin color all determine a student’s likelihood to get where we are. Coming out the other side, we can be part of changing that.
Working with kids changes you. It brings concepts like justice and equity into focus in a way that a textbook or policy gig never could. It shows you what potential looks like — in a seventh grader’s first lab report, a breakthrough with a new student, a classroom that brims with pride and possibility.
Sometimes, when I need encouragement, I imagine Stanford Stadium on graduation day filled with students from all backgrounds who’ve come to flourish and learn and push big ideas. It’s a place that won’t build itself. I hope you’ll be a part of it.
Priti Sanghani ‘06
Priti Sanghani was a part of the Teach for America – New York City 2006 corps. She is currently an analyst at Education First Consulting.
Contact Priti Sanghani at psanghani ‘at’ education-first.com.