Kramer '00 is teaching her class of 20 kindergartners how to write the
letter P. Dressed in "kindergarten casual" and speaking in a practiced
kindergarten voice, she coaches them: "Down... Stop. Around... Stop."
Most of her primarily Latino children make nice plump
capital P's. Occasionally she prompts one of them in Spanish (her minor
at Pomona). She has organized the class into short activity modules to
minimize the natural squirminess of five-year-olds. Most can write their
names, or type them on the Macintosh LCII in the corner. Most can write
short sentences in the journals they keep.
Half an hour away, Laura DeRoche '00 stands at the head
of a class of ninth-graders, helping them correct run-on sentences in
essays about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet--a tale ninth-graders can
easily relate to. Sentences from their essays are displayed on an overhead,
which she edits and re-edits in response to suggestions from the students.
Their essay assignment was to decide who was responsible for the lovers'
deaths and to explain why they think so. DeRoche, who hails from Wisconsin,
speaks to her class in language accessible to teenagers.
"Any of you guys have issues with this sentence?" The
comments from the class are not too tactful, but definitely show that
the students know the score with run-on sentences. Brittany: "That sentence
is too complicated!" Genaro, to Chris, the author: "That should be capitalized...
You don't know how to, or you just don't like to?" The students are struggling
with the task of putting together coherent essays, but they are taking
A large chart on the wall, titled (somewhat indignantly)
"Is this English??" lists "translations" of words and phrases from Shakespeare
into present-day English. Without making too obvious a point of it, DeRoche
has encouraged her students, mostly either Latino or African-American,
to think about different versions of English and when it may be appropriate
to use them. There are only 10 students in the room, but another chart
on the wall ("Where have YOU been?") suggests that attendance varies from
day to day and that as many as half the students may be absent on a bad
Just to the north, Paul Ceron '99 is helping his third-graders
understand a bus boycott, in connection with their observance of Martin
Luther King Jr. Day. Most of his class is Latino. Most are fluent in English,
but for those who are not, Ceron, who is bilingual, mixes in some Spanish
to keep them from getting lost. Occasionally he asks a student to explain
something in Spanish for a floundering classmate. This provides a helping
hand for those still unsteady with English and allows Ceron to monitor
how well the explainer understands the material. Most of the students
seem to understand the purpose of a boycott--the bus company loses money
if people don't ride and will be eager to see the unfair laws changed.
Some of them relate the bus boycott to the lettuce boycott organized by
Cesar Chavez. The kids are pretty wiggly but seem to have the skills one
would expect from third-graders.
Kramer teaches in Watts, DeRoche in Compton and Ceron
in Lynwood, all Southern California communities underserved by their educational
systems. These new teachers are part of a growing number of recent Pomona
alumni who have put their long-term career plans on hold in order to commit
a few years of their lives to community service.
For these three, the agency involved is Teach for America
(TFA), but other Pomona graduates have chosen to devote a year or two
of their lives to such service organizations as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps
or the New York City Teaching Fellows.
Part of the oft-maligned "Generation X," many of today's
Pomona graduates, like other new graduates around the country, are showing
signs that the generational pendulum may have turned. After growing up
amid the "me generation" of the 1980s, many have grown disenchanted with
what they see as a culture of self-absorption.
"In our culture we're really focused on monetary success,
economic wealth, material possessions," Ceron says, "But we're part of
a community. There's a whole world out there that needs change, and I
feel this is one of the best ways I could have done that. At Pomona College
we are all incredibly privileged, and I think it's our responsibility
to give back some."
Sarah Hahn '01, who has applied to TFA for next year,
takes very seriously the text on Pomona's gate--‘They only are loyal to
this college who bear their added riches in trust for mankind.' "That's
something I really believe in," she says. "Education and knowledge have
to have a point."
These young people see their choices as growing out
of, not contradicting, their high-achievement college experience. DeRoche
was attracted to TFA for some of the same reasons she was drawn to Pomona.
"The number of bright, motivated people at TFA made me want to be part
of the organization, just as that same factor made me want to come to
Amy Roza '99, a TFA member now teaching pre-kindergarten
in Washington, D.C., knew she wanted to do something in the nonprofit
world after college. "I knew equal access to quality education is a key
component to the solutions of a number of social issues," she says. "Teen
pregnancy, cycles of poverty, cycles of imprisonment, justice issues in
this country--take your pick. So the Teach for America mission spoke to
Are young people nowadays really more inclined toward
community service than in the recent past? Heather Pirot, assistant director
of career development at Pomona, thinks the answer is yes.
Twenty students applied to TFA last year, and over 40
turned up at their October information session for next year. "This is
our largest group of Teach for America applicants ever, and I think this
year's group of Peace Corps applicants has to be one of our largest,"
Pirot said. "In the four years I've been here, it seems to me that interest
in these programs is certainly growing."
That impression is borne out pretty clearly in the records
of the Peace Corps, which will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary. Very
active in its first decade, the Peace Corps suffered a lull in the '70s
and '80s. By 1992, there were fewer than 5,000 Peace Corps volunteers.
As interest in community service has waxed again, so have the fortunes
of the Peace Corps, which now has over 7,300 volunteers serving in 76
countries--the highest level since 1974.
The same pattern is evident on the domestic front. AmeriCorps,
established in 1993, is the descendant of VISTA (Volunteers in Service
to America). Begun in 1964, shortly after the Peace Corps, VISTA also
suffered a lull. Today there are nearly 40,000 AmeriCorps members serving
with local organizations like Habitat for Humanity or the American Red
The privately funded Teach for America is perhaps the
clearest indicator of all that service is back on young people's minds.
Created by the senior thesis of a Princeton student, TFA has grown in
only 10 years to 1,500 teachers in 15 locations around the country. After
an intense five-week "boot camp" (both Ceron and DeRoche describe it that
way), members are hired by the local districts at regular beginning teacher
salaries. Teach for America continues to monitor and support them as they
cope with the challenges of first-year teaching in a difficult environment.
Diane Robinson, the executive director of Teach for
America in Los Angeles, says 90 percent of members hang in the full two
years, and that 60 percent stay in education beyond that time. In comparison,
the drop-out rate among first-year teachers outside the program is as
high as 50 percent in some areas.
For Hahn, who plans to get a Ph.D. in English literature
after her tour of duty as a teacher, a turning point was the parent-teacher
conferences she attended with the Upward Bound student she was tutoring
while at Pomona. "I was unprepared for some of what I heard and saw,"
she explains. "The problems of under-resourced schools, against which
I was fighting as part of the Upward Bound program--overcrowding, outdated
and scarce textbooks, teacher burnout--all of that became a hard reality.
It seemed in many ways that the education my student was receiving was
in no way comparable to the decent one I had received, also at a public
Like Hahn, most graduates who opt for service after
college already have the community service habit. While at Pomona, DeRoche,
who majored in English and minored in politics, taught a couple of high
school English classes in a program called College Bound, which prepares
minority students for college. She describes herself as "passionate about
public policy, particularly education policy. I decided that experiencing
the day-to-day problems and triumphs of an under-resourced school would
someday make me a much more effective policy-maker."
DeRoche, like many young people in TFA or the Peace
Corps, started off thinking about the impact she could have on the world
and was surprised by the impact the experience had on her own life. Hooked
on the rewards of working with kids, she now plans to teach beyond her
two-year commitment with TFA.
Teach for America frequently lures people into long-term
teaching careers. The Peace Corps impact is more complicated. Many volunteers
become fluent in a second language. Many suffer culture shock when they
leave, and then reverse culture shock when they return. Some find their
sense of themselves as Americans is never quite the same.
In the words of Rebecca Coolidge '97, a returned Peace
Corps volunteer, "the Peace Corps makes you define your goals." She spent
two years teaching English in Cameroon, and then another year and a half
supervising a program in Cote d'Ivoire. Now she is teaching reading to
seventh graders in New Hampshire and plotting her return to living abroad.
Esther Limb '97 recently returned from a Peace Corps
posting in Ukraine, teaching high school English. Another politics major,
she is now a marketing associate at an Internet company in San Francisco.
Like many Peace Corps volunteers, she acquired a foreign language, in
her case Russian. As a Korean-American, she found it easier than her non-hyphenated
fellow volunteers to blend into a foreign country, since she was not immediately
presumed to be American. But like Coolidge, she now hankers to return
to living abroad, maybe permanently.
For many Pomona students from the '60s, such stories
of lives changed by service sound very familiar.
Stephen Schaffran '67, who took a sabbatical from college
to spend two years (1962-64) with the Peace Corps in Peru, still describes
himself as a "venture catalyst." The most lasting influence of his years
in the Peace Corps, he says, has been his fluency in Spanish. In fact,
this permanent enrichment has extended to a second generation. His children
heard so much Spanish around the house that they both chose to learn it
Fran Davidson '63 spent 1965-67 teaching English in
a village in northern Ethiopia. "I had taken medieval history from Mr.
Learnihan," she chuckles, "and there I was, living in a medieval village."
The experience, she says, colored her whole life. "Until you really live
in a Third World country, you have such a limited vision of what the real
world is like. The Third World has strengths you don't understand until
you live there."
Yvonne Gritzer '63 spent 1963-65 in the Peace Corps
teaching English to French-speaking Cameroonians right after the reunification
of francophone East Cameroon with anglophone West Cameroon. Her reasons
for taking time out for Peace Corps service sound very much like those
given by more recent alumni: "I was reached by the words of President
Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you...' It was a time for
extending beyond racial and cultural divides." Gritzer, a French and comparative
literature major, credits the Peace Corps experience with giving her the
desire and preparation to go on to graduate school. In fact, she did her
master's thesis in French literature on Mongo Beti, a Cameroonian writer.
She later married another returned Peace Corps volunteer, and her son
Jason has been a volunteer twice, to Cameroon and Bolivia.
"You might say our family has Peace Corps in the blood,"
Schaffran's son Nate is also continuing the family tradition
of community service--working in Nicaragua for a Quaker-run farm coop.
So maybe it's a generational thing. Certainly, the challenging
ring of optimism in Paul Ceron's voice can easily take us back to that
earlier era of idealism and hope: "I invite anyone to step up to the challenge
and make a difference, not only in your own life but in someone else's
life." --Sandy Becker '63 is a research technician at Wesleyan University
and a freelance writer.