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Seven first-generation graduates join Teach For America

By: Nancy Doolittle,  Cornell Chronicle
May 23, 2017

Ava Ramsundar ’17 will follow the passion that prompted her to minor in education and join Teach For America (TFA) after graduation. Ramsundar, who majored in psychology and hopes to become a psychiatrist, will teach in Paterson, New Jersey, this fall.

Travis Ghirdharie ’17, who majored in government and anthropology, also has joined TFA and will teach social studies at the Math, Engineering and Science Academy in Brooklyn, New York.

Founded in 1990, TFA partners with communities nationwide to expand educational opportunities for children in poverty. Cornell’s TFA participants this year will also teach in such cities as Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Tulsa, Nashville and Miami in subjects including social studies, English, biology, math and science.

There will be 33 Cornellians teaching in the program next fall. Ramsundar and Ghirdharie are among seven first-generation graduates in that group. The first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in the United States, so-called first-gen students comprise about 14 percent of Cornell’s undergraduate population – and this year represent 21 percent of the university’s TFA participants.

“I am so proud of all of our Teach For America participants,” said Vijay Pendakur, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students. “Not only have many of them overcome significant social and economic challenges to come to Cornell and succeed here, but they are going the extra step and applying their world-class education to enhance the public good and serve students at the margins of our K-12 school systems.”

Ramsundar says her first passion was teaching. “Even at age 9, I would stay back during recess to help other students or the teachers. That passion stayed with me all through high school,” she said. “With teaching, you can connect with students and make a difference. It’s my way of giving back to the future.”

Ramsundar’s family came from Guyana, eventually settling in Long Island. Ramsundar says she is grateful to her high school teachers for helping her apply to college, choose Cornell and prepare for her first year.

Her Cornell professors were equally supportive. In pursuing a pre-med path, Ramsundar realized she was interested in people’s minds and behaviors, so she decided to major in psychology. A field practicum psychology class convinced her that was the right decision, and she decided to minor in education and apply to TFA.

“I may find that teaching in an elementary school is exactly what I want to do with my career,” Ramsundar said. “Or, if I go on to medical school, the TFA experience will help me understand children on an emotional and individual level and account for factors that could be influencing their behaviors.”

Ghirdharie’s parents also are from Guyana, and they too moved to New York. Ghirdharie first learned the value of teaching when he helped his parents study for their citizenship exams. His father worked long hours in the food industry, while his mother worked night shift. They later moved to Schenectady, New York, where Ghirdharie strove to become integrated into the U.S. culture of his peers without giving up his own cultural heritage.

“Every day was a struggle between my culture and my education,” he said.

When Ghirdharie came to Cornell, he continued to affirm his heritage and advance in his education. “Diversity should not be a melting pot,” he said. “You should be able to see yourself – see others like you – in the classroom, fully integrated but not absorbed.”

Ghirdharie’s conviction to consider teaching as a career was strengthened when he became a summer camp counselor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and saw students from families with high incomes had exposure to opportunities that those from lower-income families did not.

“While education can help students overcome economic disadvantages, the educational system today is not helping them do so,” he said.

At Cornell, Ghirdharie’s anthropology professor, Sofia Villenas, recognized his passion for making things better for underrepresented groups.

“By using social justice and multicultural pedagogies in my teaching, allowing students to see themselves in the curriculum, I could show them how to advocate for themselves and their community,” Ghirdharie said.

Through teaching, Ghirdharie wants to help all students, especially those who are first-gen, he said. “I want to work inside schools to mobilize communities, so that both parents and children can feel they belong here, in the United States. The history of first-generation students is an American history,” he said.

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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