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Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp encourages students to use energy, talents to serve community

<p>Wendy Kopp leads Teach for America, which&nbsp;recruits college graduates from top universities to serve as teachers in public schools for two years.</p>

Wendy Kopp leads Teach for America, which recruits college graduates from top universities to serve as teachers in public schools for two years.

Wendy Kopp, former CEO and co-founder of Teach for America, spoke to the Duke community Tuesday night about lessons she learned in the process of founding the organization. 

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that recruits college graduates from top universities to serve as teachers in public schools for two years. The talk was hosted by the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative in Penn Pavilion. 

Kopp explained that she became focused on the question of educational inequity as she wrote her thesis during her senior year at Princeton University in 1989, when many consulting firms and investment banks came to recruit students to work for them for two years. She then had the idea of recruiting college students to be teachers in low income communities.

“I become very obsessed with this idea,” Kopp said. “On one hand, we will be channeling all these energy and talents into the classroom, and that will make a real difference in the life of kids and the communities. But at the same time, how powerful would it be to take all these well-educated future leaders and have their first two years out of college to be working with kids in low income communities.”

Kopp added that there are currently 8,000 TFA members in the midst of their two-year teaching service. About 86 percent of the 42,000 former participants are doing mission-related work, and approximately two-thirds are working in education.

Duke is among the top contributor schools for TFA, with 17 students joining the organization last year, said senior Katie Gladstone, a TFA intern and student organizer of the event.

In 2007, Kopp co-founded and launched Teach For All—a network of 40 independent locally-led organizations—after meeting with social entrepreneurs from different countries such as India, Chile and China, who wanted to create similar organizations to expand education opportunities.

“We believe that what holds a whole segment of kids back in virtually every country in the world is a very complex set of challenges, such as poverty and discrimination, before they even show up to school," Kopp said.

She added that society cannot rely on teachers alone to address the issue in its full complexity.

Kopp then shared some lessons that she has learned along “the journey of social entrepreneurship" and advised the audience to start early because inexperience can actually be a big asset.

“We need folk’s energy before you understand what is not possible. We need the crazy questions," she said.

She also suggested future entrepreneurs should immerse themselves in communities and problems they care about.

“This message of re-imagining education with our community, her call-to-action on that really resonates with me. And it’s a powerful message for us and for students who come here tonight to know that the community is the unit of change,” said Andrew Lakis, a Duke alumni and the executive director for Teach For America Eastern North Carolina.

Kopp concluded her talk by encouraging people to believe in the power of actions, especially in “such an intense time in our country’s history." 

“You get into this stuff, you realize that these challenges are solvable,"  she said. "The only question is that whether enough of our most capable, deeply-committed, brilliant folks will channel their energy towards the questions."