Founder and Chair of Teach for America
Boston University Commencement Speech
May 19, 2013
Thank you President Brown, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, friends, parents, and most importantly, graduates of Boston University’s Class of 2013!
I’m Wendy Kopp, I’m the person responsible for those persistent Teach For America recruiters who have been after you all year.
I feel tremendously privileged to be able to celebrate this day with you, and to be at BU – a school that has given Teach For America – and the world – so many incredible leaders.
BU’s School of Education – where are you guys? We’re so lucky to have a strong partnership with the Ed School. You’ve helped train and develop our corps members since we started working in Massachusetts. So thank you Dean Coleman and all those who are working with our teachers and students.
It’s an honor to share the stage with my fellow honorees:
Professor Robert Langer, Bishop Peter Weaver.
Mayor Menino, whose name is synonymous with Boston and public service.
And of course, the incomparable Morgan Freeman. You all know him as a legendary actor, but you may not know that he’s also a dedicated education advocate. He’s been supporting our work in the Mississippi Delta – his home – for over a decade.
Since everything sounds better narrated by Morgan, I seriously thought I would just hand over my speech and have him read it.
Morgan may have starred in the movie, but I got to check something off my own Bucket List recently when I was finally retweeted by Dean Elmore… The guy has 13,000 twitter followers. Our Teach For America folks on campus told him, Dean, we’ve noticed you haven’t retweeted us yet. He responded, I only retweet things that are witty.
This is a big day, and I know that you’re probably feeling that strange mix of emotions that come with the cap and gown.
You feel relieved – you’re finally getting that diploma! …Except the unlucky ones who accidentally stepped on the BU Seal…you know who you are.
You feel grateful – to the friends and family who supported you every step of the way. Let’s hear it for them!
And I certainly hope you feel very proud. I particularly want to recognize those of you who are the first in your families to graduate from college.
This year, I know your joy is tempered by a sense of loss.
BU is such a large and diverse campus, it can be easy to forget at times that you are all part of the same community. But some events always brought you together – none more so than Marathon Monday.
Like everyone else, I watched with horror as the news unfolded on Patriot’s Day.
As I struggled to comprehend and to find the right words to say to a community that has endured this tragedy firsthand, I thought about the beautiful sculpture on Marsh Plaza dedicated to BU’s most famous alum, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The sculpture features 50 birds to represent the 50 states, and legend has it that when the world is finally at peace, the birds will fly away.
On April 15, that day felt very distant.
Suddenly, problems half a world away were brought to our doorstep.
Dr. King was right: “we are tied together in the single garment of destiny,” and today that garment wraps tightly around the globe. In ways good and bad, our world is more interconnected than ever before.
At a time when conflict spills across national borders and injustice anywhere is a threat to security and prosperity everywhere, we cannot ignore violence, deprivation or repression wherever it exists.
We must broaden the definition of who our neighbors are, and extend the boundaries of our interest and empathy.
You’ve done that at BU, a university that’s not only global but globally-minded. 40% of undergraduates studied abroad during your time here.
And today you join the ranks of alumni who include civil rights leaders like Barbara Jordan and – by my count – at least 4 heads of state. Today you become the stewards of BU’s long legacy of promoting social justice.
So as you continue your journey as BU graduates, the question you face is: What will you do to confront the root causes of violence and injustice in our world? When there is so much injustice to fight, where do you even begin?
There’s no how-to guide for how to change the world. But it’s easy to get hung up by misconceptions about what it takes to make an impact. So today I hope to make the way forward a little less daunting by debunking a few of the myths that I’ve encountered and heard so often.
The first myth is one I’m intimately familiar with, since it’s what most people think my story is all about. It’s the misconception that changing the world is about coming up with a big idea.
When I started Teach For America, I wasn’t trying to come up with an idea that would change the world. I was trying to solve a problem that was much closer to home: I was a senior in college and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life! I’m sure that doesn’t sound at all familiar to any of you.
Wall Street recruiters and consulting firms were banging down our doors, asking for just two-year commitments, but I was searching for something I wasn’t finding and I knew I wasn’t alone.
I’d become very focused on education. I felt the whole world was open to me because of the privilege of my own education. But I knew that this wasn’t true for everyone. That despite our aspiration to be a Land of Equal Opportunity, where children are born in this country still determines the educational opportunities they’ll receive and as a result, their prospects in life.
One day my growing sense about what our generation was searching for and my belief in the importance of education came together: Why don’t we have a national teacher corps that recruits top graduates to commit two years to teach in our highest poverty communities?
Teach For America was a gamble on the idealism of the rising generation. But we quickly discovered that idealism is not enough.
We spent our first few years constantly on the brink of collapse, operating payroll to payroll. If Teach For America were a novel, our first few years would have been Lord of the Flies.
It turns out it’s hard to recruit and select a diverse corps of individuals who are ready to teach in our neediest schools.
It is hard to provide them with the training and ongoing support necessary so they don’t just survive but thrive with their students.
It is hard to ensure their experience does not disillusion but empowers them to be lifelong leaders for change.
Many of you are probably relieved to be done with your senior thesis. But, after a quarter century, I’m still working on mine.
We still have a ways to go, but today Teach For America is making a greater impact than ever. This past year, 57,000 college graduates applied to the corps — our biggest applicant pool in history.
I want to give a special shout out to the 33 BU grads in the audience today who will be joining our 2013 corps! And, to the Teach For America alums who I just saw on my Twitter are here getting their master’s today.
Two-thirds of our 28,000 alumni are still in education today, working alongside many others in hot pursuit of a shared vision of educational excellence and equity. Hundreds of them are leading some of the most innovative and fastest-improving schools and school systems in the country. Many others are working in policy, law, medicine, and social welfare to take on the many obstacles that keep our students from realizing their dreams.
And we are part of an increasingly global movement. Today Teach For America is inspiring progress internationally and learning immensely as part of the Teach For All network, where from Teach For China to EnsenaPeru, teachers and alumni are pursuing our shared vision of educational opportunity for all.
We are making progress today not because of a big idea but because of a big commitment. Because we plunged in and embraced the journey of constant learning and improvement.
This isn’t just true of TFA.
In his book Little Bets, author Peter Sims observes that the most successful entrepreneurs of our time didn’t start with big ideas – they discovered them by immersing themselves in an issue they cared about. And then they kept tweaking and revising, continuously adjusting their course based on what did and didn’t work.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t set out to revolutionize the Web. They were just Stanford graduate students trying to figure out how to prioritize library searches online. Once they founded Google, they didn’t stop when they had a good search engine. Their drive to try new ideas, evaluate and try again has allowed them to reinvent industries from advertising to publishing.
This brings me to myth number two: that having an impact is about being first. I meet so many young people who are trying to make their mark by carving out their own unique niche. They want to start a new organization, invent some game-changing technology, be the first one up the mountain.
I understand where that impulse comes from.
As BU graduates, you walk in the footsteps of giants.
Your fellow alums include the first American woman to earn a PhD, the first woman admitted to the bar in Massachusetts, the country’s first black psychiatrist and its first popularly-elected black senator.
Alexander Graham Bell was a BU faculty member when he conducted his experiments on the strange, new concept of…the phone.
In a society that glorifies the pioneers, it’s easy to think that an endeavor is only worth pursuing if you can be the first to pursue it.
Yet, the people who have most changed the way we see the world and live our lives – from Einstein to Steve Jobs – all understood that innovation is not primarily about coming up with new ideas. It’s about connecting good ideas to human needs — whether that means borrowing and adapting solutions that already exist or devising new ones.
Our world needs more copy cats.
Bill Clinton says that when he was governor of Arkansas, he was always proudest when his state was the second to do something. Because that meant an idea could be replicated on a scale that would make a real difference in people’s lives. It drove him crazy when he saw a good idea that wasn’t being copied.
A few weeks ago I was in Mumbai visiting Gaurav Singh and the school he founded in the city’s slums, called 3.2.1. As a Teach For India fellow, Gaurav taught some of the most marginalized children in India – children growing up in dense shantytowns without basic sanitation or electricity.
In a community where few of the parents are literate and more than 90% of students will drop out before graduating from high school, Gaurav knew he had to do more.
He was determined to create the first tuition-free school in India that would prove children from the slums can excel at the same level as their affluent peers. But Gaurav didn’t just go set up shop. He began by studying what exceptional schools in other countries were already doing.
He spent a year exploring 40 schools in the U.S. that are changing the lives of low-income students. He was voracious about building his own knowledge about what an excellent education looks like and how to provide it. “I didn’t want to waste my time reinventing the wheel,” he told me, “but focus on adapting what was working and innovate where I had to meet the different needs of my community.”
When he went back to Mumbai, he borrowed some ideas, like the length and structure of the school day. Others, he modified, like the math curriculum and the disciplinary system. And in a few cases, he created his own model.
After just one year, Gaurav has created a school where 4- and 5- year olds who had never been exposed to English before could have a fluid conversation with me. I watched as one little girl stood up in front of her peers of 4 and 5 year-olds and taught the class in English. 3.2.1. is changing attitudes about what kids from the slums are capable of. Last month, 300 people from local shopkeepers to police officers showed up to watch the students in an end-of-year showcase.
Pioneers are important. They spark our imagination by showing us what’s possible. But if only one person ever breaks through, and we fail to spread those solutions, what value is it to the rest of us?
The people who ultimately make the greatest difference are people like Gaurav, who pursue impact, not invention. To successfully confront the enormous problems we face, we need to band together in mass efforts instead of starting 1,000 different initiatives.
The final myth about changing the world is one I often hear from new graduates — that it’s better to wait until you have more experience.
Now, it may seem from where you sit that the impact you can have at this point in your lives is negligible.
But I’m a big believer in the power of INexperience. It was the greatest asset I had when I started TFA. If I had known at the outset how hard it was going to be, I might never have started.
The world needs you before you stop asking naïve questions and while you have the time to understand the true nature of the complex problems we face and take them on.
Consider the experience of Maria Zambrano. When Maria started as a freshman here at BU, she was sure she was living the American Dream. She’d been raised in an extremely low-income family in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school, and her plan was to be a lawyer.
But as soon as her college classes started, she realized just how far behind she was.
She’d been a straight A student in high school. But, now she was struggling just to pass. And she discovered that all her classmates who came from neighborhoods like hers were in the same boat. So when she joined Teach For America in 2006 to teach English as a second language in East LA, she was determined to be the teacher she never had: someone who understood what it felt like to grow up poor, who would talk to her kids about college and hold them to the highest expectations.
She did incredible things in the classroom, but she also realized how much more had to be done to ensure her students fulfilled their true potential. So today she is back in her hometown where she’s the founding executive director of Excel Bridgeport, which is tackling the problem of educational inequity from every direction, engaging parents, community advocates, elected officials, even clergy to raise standards and expectations for every school and every child.
Now she knows the problem she first came face to face with on this campus goes deeper than she could ever have imagined when she started. But she also knows that a network of leaders fighting together can completely change the prospects for kids in a school system most people had given up on.
Maria doesn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. She’s found her life’s work in education, and she’s glad she started when she did because she knows it is a long, long road ahead.
So, don’t put your desire to change the world on hold. Start now and go forth in constant pursuit of learning and impact.
I wholeheartedly agree with Anne Lamott, author of the wonderful book on writing Bird by Bird: “What people somehow forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here… So go ahead and make big scrawls and mistakes. Use up lots of paper.”
As she tells us in those words, if you don’t give yourself room to explore by starting early, immersing yourself in an issue you care about and embracing the iterative process, you’ll never end up with your best draft.
You may well not remember this speech 10 years from now, but I know you’ll remember the events leading up to your graduation.
When you do, I hope you’ll remember the promise that Jing Li made at the recent memorial service to her friend and your classmate Lingzi Lu: “We will keep running to finish the race for you and we will try to realize your unfinished dream.”
Lingzi came to the US from her home in China to pursue her love of math and her dream of a broader world than the one she had known. She was one of 6,000 international students on campus from 150 countries who made BU one of the most internationally-diverse and respected universities in the world. Who made this a college that opens your minds and your hearts.
The world came to you at BU. You saw its promise in classmates like Lingzi, and in recent weeks you’ve seen its perils as clearly as ever.
Now as you go out into the world, I know that you will carry on BU’s extraordinary legacy.
We need you.
Thank you, and good luck!