Kopp’s commencement message: Keep on being outspoken in the same good way

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, who founded Teach For America, will be the featured speaker at the May 18 UC Berkeley commencement. (Photo: Teach For All)

Wendy Kopp’s always had a soft spot for UC Berkeley. In the three decades since she turned her senior thesis at Princeton University into the nonprofit Teach For America program, designed to produce leaders who want to improve learning opportunities for all students, 865 Berkeley alumni have joined.

On May 18, she’ll use some of her time as keynote speaker for Berkeley’s Spring 2019 Commencement to say thanks to the school that has produced the second-highest number of Teach For America proselytizers — and to tell graduates assembled at Memorial Stadium that there is much more to do.

Kopp says of her thoughts after accepting the offer to speak, “I really contemplated, ‘What do I have to say? Am I going to have a message?’”

Short answer: Yes.

“I do have a message, and Berkeley will be a really interesting place to try and convey it,” Kopp says. “This generation is the most outspoken, in such a good way, around addressing equity, standing up for sustainability, #MeToo survivors and immigrants. I am not sure if there has been a more activist generation on campuses.

“I want to call on this generation to continue that activism and outspokenness and to make choices that put them in the arena of tackling the most pressing challenges. That would put them in proximity to the real challenges, where they are grappling with complexity and nuance and finding a way to the real solutions.”

Teach For America, now 30 years old, has a younger sibling, Teach For All, which is a network of partner organizations worldwide — earlier this year, Teach For Portugal became the 49th country represented — trying to put Teach For America principles in action. The goal is to address the fact that not all children get to take part in an educational system designed to help them achieve.

Berkeley senior class president Jesse Gil, head of the committee that invited Kopp to give the address, says Teach For America “helps fight the education problem” and that Kopp “inspires others to see the real issues that education is facing.”

And the fact that Kopp started her program at essentially the same age the graduates are now was an eye-opener.

Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp speaking at the 2012 meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, (Photo: Sebastian Derungs. World Economic Forum)

“If anything, Wendy is not only a great choice (for commencement speaker) for the things she has done for the educational community,” Gil says, “but at such an age to be a woman to have started this company, it’s like `Whoa, what am I doing?’ Her drive to do this is so inspiring, and to do it at such a young age, she is a great role model for us students.”

Teach For America and Teach For All network partners both ask college students to expand educational activities by spending at least two years teaching in an under-resourced public school. The hope is that those who join will contribute to the academic and personal growth of their students.

More than that, the two programs strive to develop leaders around the world who will channel their energies “into the arena of working with the most marginalized kids in their countries,” Kopp says.

Kopp doesn’t have a personal connection to Berkeley, but in addition to the nearly 900 participants to come out of the university, Berkeley alumnae Khadija Shahper Bakhtiar, who received her master’s degree in public policy in 2010, and Erica Butow, who earned her MBA in 2014, have founded Teach For All organizations — Teach For Pakistan and Ensina Brazil, respectively.

“It’s just incredible seeing people sign up for this and committing two years,” Kopp says. “They have a real impact, and most never really leave the work. They are exerting leadership in every level of the educational system, the policy system and from outside the educational system, as well.

“Leadership is what we need. It is the core of the solution. We need systematic change, and we’ve seen local leaders can move so much more quickly when they are globally informed and exposed to folks in other countries who are doing good things. That’s what we’re about, having locally rooted and globally informed leaders who are all working to insure that, one day, all kids can fulfill their potential.”

Asked what she would like to see from Berkeley grads as they prepare for the next step of their journeys, Kopp says she hopes she won’t sound too pie-in-the-sky when she says, “I’d like them to know that the whole world is open to them, and that they can actually change the trajectory of the world.”

“I’d like them to put their energy against the world’s most pressing problems,” she says, “and to have them ask the most naïve, but important, questions and to challenge the way things are done.”

Kopp knows all about naïve questions. Her career is built on one that came to her as a senior at Princeton.

“I was blessed with naïveté,” Kopp says. “I was a college senior, and our generation was known as the quote ‘Me Generation,’ like we only cared about ourselves, and we were all going to work on Wall Street and make a lot of money. And that wasn’t the generation I knew. Everyone I knew was just searching for a way to make a real difference in the world, but we weren’t seeing the possibilities. The only recruiters were investment banks and management consulting firms banging down our doors, asking us to commit just two years to work in their firms.

“That’s what led to this notion — that, and the fact that I’d realized that where you are born predicts everything. I mean, your educational outcomes, your life outcomes. All that just came together one day, and I thought, ‘Why aren’t we being recruited just as aggressively to commit to teach in low-income communities as we are being recruited to work two years on Wall Street?’”

And a movement was built. As for the naïveté, Kopp says she didn’t know then how hard the process was going to be.

“I’m glad I didn’t know,” she says. “This is probably always my message. We really do need young people before they become jaded to the current reality and just accept it. I think that’s part of the power of our organizations — getting people set to put their energy against really pressing problems that a lot of people really have given up on.

“These people who commit are operating with a real sense of possibility. Over time, that — and a lot of perseverance — can make a real difference.”