First Gen Fireside Chat: Education Insights with Teach for America, William Okarfo-Smart and Bernard Alexander

In celebration of First Gen Week at Penn, Career Services is highlighting experiences, perspectives and advice from first gen professionals in various career fields.

Ready to make an impact in the lives of others?  Join us for a Fireside Chat Zoom Conversation with Teach for America, William Okarfo-Smart and Bernard Alexander

Wednesday, November 10th, 2021
12:30p – 1:00p
LIVE via Zoom

** Want to listen on your own time? All registrants will receive a link to the interview.**

Tell us a little about yourself. 

William Smart: My name is Will Smart and I am a proud descendant of immigrants from a small country in West Africa called Sierra Leone. I was born in Staten Island, NY, and then moved to Philadelphia when I was 9 years old. I attended Northeast High School where many of my teachers, mentors, and coaches had a profound impact in helping me actualize the potential that lies within and pursue the myriad of passions I had. I graduated from The Pennsylvania State University with a degree in Psychology with a concentration in neuroscience and a degree in International Studies with a concentration in Wealth and Inequality. My education provided me with the foundational skills and knowledge needed to empower others and to pursue systems-level change. After college, I joined the fight against educational inequity by serving as a corps member with Teach for America. I served as a 10th Grade Algebra I Teacher and an 11th Grade Chemistry Teacher in North Philadelphia. Motivated by the inspiring teachers I worked alongside, I joined the recruitment team of Teach for America to continue to find passionate young leaders to empower our communities.

Bernard Alexander: I grew up in the Bronx to a family of immigrants from a small Caribbean island named Dominica. Since a kid my parents always pushed my brother and I to do our best in school. That led me to a love for reading and writing, which fueled my passions to become a writer. Graduating from Lehman College in the Bronx was one of my proudest achievements, for myself and for my parents, who managed to come here with little education, create a life for us, and push my brother and I to be the first in our family to graduate from college. After college I became a 7th/8th grade English teacher in Hartford Connecticut for 2 years and subsequently I joined Teach for America as a recruiter.

What surprises you the most about your job? 

Will Smart: Teaching was one of the greatest acts of service that I prided myself on. While in the classroom, I had the opportunity to see the immediate impact of my action through my students. Whether that was putting a smile on my students’ faces or seeing the “aha” moment when a student perseveres through a tough problem. I didn’t think that my time as a recruitment manager would’ve been as profound or personally impactful, but it is. I have the opportunity to have conversations with passionate young leaders to where I learn more about their backgrounds, their hopes and dreams, and their post-graduate options. I often find myself inspired by the students I speak with often and find pride in empowering them to figure out how they can leverage their leadership to make an impact with or without Teach for America. Beyond students, I am pleasantly surprised with the passion of the external partners that I work with across my campus.

Bernard Alexander: I think what surprises me the most is how fascinating and filled with depth the prospects I get the opportunity to speak to. While I was active in college, I think in this role I get the chance to find out so much about college students in my quick interactions with them. Their motivations, experiences, and ambitions are often so inspiring and continue to push me everyday to show up and help them think and plan out their post graduate options whether that ultimately ends up in the classroom or not.  

What internship opportunities does your company offer? 

Bernard Alexander: We have our campus ambassador position, college juniors/seniors who get the opportunity to assist the recruitment team in spreading the word about Teach for America on their college campuses. We also have the IGNITE fellowship a new initiative on a semester basis that allows students of all years to tutor students. Both are paid opportunities.  

Will Smart: (1) Campus Ambassador – open to college juniors/seniors who get the opportunity to assist the recruitment team in spreading the word about Teach for America on their college campuses. (2) IGNITE fellowship is a new initiative on a semester basis that allows students of all years to mentor and lead a group of students to personal and academic success.

I think first-generation students are the most powerful group of students on college campuses and oftentimes turn out to be the strongest leaders. This is because many first-generation students have a high level of grit, tenacity, and perseverance. Many of us had to figure out life and the path to college with having little to no guidance in our immediate families. As a result, we had to be resilient as we figured out our path to success and overcame the obstacles along the way. Additionally, first-generation students bring a new perspective. Many people in power come from families that are proximate to power and are likely to make the same decisions as those who preceded them. However, first-generation students do not come from that same background. They champion a different perspective that those in power often overlook. Their perspective is one that is much needed if we are to stand any chance at making this world a better place.  It is for these reasons and many more that I believe first-generation students are the most powerful groups of students and often time turn out to be the strongest leaders.

What does being first gen mean to you? 

Bernard Alexander: I think being first generation is something incredibly powerful and the opportunity to truly create something new and exciting in this country. I’m forever grateful to my parents and the generations before me who led me to be born into this country and continue our legacy in a brand new country. I think first generations are in the truest sense Americans and it’s up to us to define what it means to be American in our own unique ways. That’s what makes our country so special is the melting pot we live in and we are living examples of that. 

By Ariana Alexander
Ariana Alexander Associate Director, Graduate School Advising