When I reflect back on my time at OU, I think about a whirlwind of incredible, life-changing experiences: getting involved in student life, studying abroad in England, spending every fall Saturday cheering on the Sooners. But as I neared the middle of my senior year last fall, I also started thinking about the question that causes every college student anxiety: What in the world am I going to do with my education after I graduate?
But the question of what I could do after graduation actually had a second part — what should I do?
As overwhelmed as I felt knowing I had so many post-graduate choices, I also understood that I was incredibly lucky. I worked hard to get to and through college and faced struggles along the way but I went to a high school where kids were expected to graduate. The question wasn’t, “Are you going to college?” but rather, “Where are you going to college?” Whenever I needed support, I never had to look far.
But I know that the same isn’t true of kids all across the country. Whereas the majority of my classmates and I went off to the colleges of our choice, among students growing up in our lowest-income communities, just 6 percent will graduate from college by the time they’re 25. This statistic in no way reflects kids’ capabilities — it’s a result of deeply entrenched systems of oppression that have denied low-income kids equal access to opportunity for decades.
I joined Teach For America because I wanted to help those kids access the same opportunities I had growing up. Now, as a teacher at Jefferson Middle School, I know I made the right choice. Nahjae could be a star football player. Daniel wants to be a doctor to help his community. But because of factors far out of their control — Nahjae has to miss football practice because of bus schedules, while Daniel doesn’t always get the rigorous instruction he needs — they have to overcome much more than my classmates and I did to make their dreams a reality.
This work is incredibly difficult. But I always ask myself: “If not me, then who?” After college, I could have applied to physical therapy school like I planned. But I traded that for a job that holds me accountable for the injustices that plague our communities because, although I did not create them, I have a responsibility as an educated citizen to fight against them.
Although this work is the hardest I’ve ever taken on, I have also never felt stronger. I have persevered in times when I thought I would fail. My colleagues and I have been life coaches, nurses, motivational speakers, counselors, role models, and problem-solvers — that’s what it means to be an educator. The work has its thankless moments. But when your students write a song about how you are the best teacher in the world or tell you that when they grow up, they want to be a teacher like you, it’s all worth it.
As a first-year Teach For America corps member, I am one of a network of more than 47,000 people working relentlessly to make access to opportunity equitable. It’s a network of leaders vastly diverse in background and experience, working across sectors to create change. But we are all united around the fundamental belief that a quality education is not a privilege — it is a right. No matter how much their parents make or what color their skin is, all kids should be getting an excellent education in America. We can fight to ensure all students get to enjoy that right. As you think about what in the world you’re going to do after you leave the University of Oklahoma, I hope you’ll join us.
Hana Johnson is a 2014 OU alumna. She currently teaches 7th grade science at Jefferson Middle School in Oklahoma City.