A Desire to Serve

Jim Amidon — There’s a pretty nasty stereotype some people in our community attach to Wabash College students. There’s a perception that Wabash guys all come from good homes, money, drive nice cars, and leave here only wanting to get rich quick.

Get to know a few Wabash men and you’ll quickly realize that every one of them is unique. Perhaps the most common thread, though, is that most of them feel the need to make a difference in the world around them.

I bumped into Tim Flowers on Friday. Tim graduated with honors and gave the Wabash Commencement speech in 2006. He had won a Truman Scholarship as a junior when he was editor of the student newspaper and a political science major. He was admitted to Indiana University School of Law and probably could have attended for free.

But he took a different path, and it’s a path that more and more Wabash men are taking these days.

Tim applied for the ultra competitive Teach for America program. TFA, as it is known, tries to attract the best and brightest college graduates from around the country, then places these fine scholars in some of our nation’s toughest, lowest-performing schools. The program’s overarching goal is overcome educational injustice in our country’s poorest, most racially diverse communities.

Instead of wrapping up his law degree and planning clerkships, today Tim is a middle school math teacher in urban Memphis, Tennessee. The tall, lanky Hoosier coaches the girls’ eighth grade basketball team at his school, which he says has brought out his “inner Bobby Knight.”

“I’m pretty brash,” he told me. “I’m pretty hard on them.”

He has to be. And he has to uphold even tougher standards in class. The kids he teaches have parents, siblings, and friends who are in gangs. The only way to get through to them academically is to be tough, strict, and fair.

I’m beginning to realize that Tim is not the exception to the Wabash rule. More and more Wabash students are choosing careers in service or are delaying their careers in order to serve their communities.

Perhaps the best known is 2004 graduate Jeremy Robinson, about whom I’ve written before. Jeremy was another Wabash academic superstar, who chose Teach for America out of Wabash and spent two years at Chicago’s inner city Harper High School. From there, he earned a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and is now finishing his master’s degree at Oxford University in England all with a career goal of improving public education back in the U.S.

Wabash has had a graduate or two go into Teach for America schools every year since 2004, and perhaps going farther back than that. Last year Wabash placed guys in Teach for America programs in South Texas and Memphis.

Flowers was back on campus Friday telling current Wabash students his Teach for America story with hopes that even more Wabash men will apply for the program. Four Wabash seniors have already been accepted into TFA, which is simply a remarkable number given how competitive the application process is. Each year about 25,000 college seniors apply for less than 2,000 positions. Flowers thinks the impact Wabash grads can have in public education is off the charts.

Teach for America says it looks for ambitious students who are good critical thinkers and who persevere in the face of challenges. Sounds like a description of a Wabash student to me.

Joining Flowers in the TFA Corps this year are Jason Simons (placed in Durham, NC), Ryan Leagre (Chicago), Chris Geggie (Indianapolis), and David Coddens (Chicago).

A.J. Lyman, one of our top graduates in 2005, joined AmeriCorps out of Wabash and spent a year directing cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina. This year three Wabash seniors are going into the Peace Corps.

Scott Crawford, director of the Schroeder Center for Career Development at Wabash, says the trend is here to stay. In fact, he told me Friday that he expects the number of 2008 graduates headed for Teach for America and the Peace Corps to continue to increase through the spring.

When Tim Flowers graduated from Wabash, he left here very accomplished and even a little cocky. Two years in the Teach for America program have changed him in wonderful, profound ways.

But the biggest changes have come in his seventh and eighth grade students, who have benefited from his strict classroom leadership, intellect, charm, and most of all, his commitment to them.

Like so many other Wabash graduates, Tim Flowers is indeed committed to making the world around him a little better than it was before.

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