This week, I had the privilege to meet many people who were deeply passionate about education reform in the US. I’m on a fellowship with Education Pioneers, an educational nonprofit that seeks to grow a pipeline of leaders in the education sector. For my summer project, I’ve been matched with Teach For America, an educational nonprofit that seeks to eliminate educational inequity.
It’s always inspiring to meet people who are passionate about social causes. (And I had the great fortune to work with many of them in my last job.) You know it when you meet such people and talk to them. You can tell it from their words and deeds, and stories.
Some of them are lively and talkative. Some of them are quiet and reserved. Regardless of their external orientation, they all have a deep and personal conviction of why they want to work in education. For example,
- One of them, M, grew up in a humble background. The odds were heavily against him and others like him. Fortunately for M, he had a lucky break and went on to do well. Despite his success, he knew that many others were not as lucky as he was, and it became his personal mission to eliminate the education inequity. He enjoys serving the underprivileged, and he considers himself “so lucky!!” to be able to do so. Wow!
- Another one of them, H, came to the US when he was a young boy and spoke no word of English. He overcame his initial handicap, and feeling a sense of gratitude to the country, he joined the army. His tour of duty took him to war-torn places around the world, where despite the destruction and abject poverty people took education seriously. He saw village kids go to “school” made up of makeshift tents in the mountains. It made him wonder how for all its wealth and spending on education, there was still so much inequity in the US. He wanted to join the education sector to do something about it.
And there are many other folks. Talking to these people, I found them to be extremely bright and talented. Quite a number were from business school. They could walk into any Fortune 500 or consulting company and earn a salary many times what they would get in the education sector. Yet many of them chose this path instead.
It’s interesting that whenever I talk to people in the US about the education system, they would have strong opinions that were generally not very positive. Most people think there are too many vested interests and the problems are too deep. When asked for their one-word description of the education landscape, some of the replies were: “intimidating”, “complicated”, “divisive”, “layered”, “complex”, “entrenched”, “incongruent”, “opaque” and “intricate”.
Yet, there was also one other word that stood out to me: “promising”. Promising, not in terms of the current state of affairs, but in terms of the people who are passionate and want to make a difference. As an optimist, I like to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Perhaps adversity and passion are two sides of the same coin? Perhaps like a spring, the harder you depress it the stronger it pushes back at you? Perhaps in the very depths of the complex problems lie the source of strength for the solutions?
A lot of discussion and criticism on education centers around money and resources. Perhaps this is not surprising, since these are tangibles that are easier to count and compare. And I do not disagree that money and infrastructure are important. At the same time, I think the greatest resource lies not in these, but in the people who strive to make a difference. These are more intangible, because its not just about the number of such people but also the depth and substance of their passion and conviction.
As I embark on my summer journey to learn more about the US education system, I will likely come across many complex challenges, perhaps far more than there are solutions. At the same time, I have faith that in the adversity also lies hope. I look forward to knowing many awesome people and their inspiring work. In that regard, I feel optimistic, and at the same time, I can’t help but feel so lucky!! :)