I remember high school like it was just three years ago. Driving to school in my rusted ’88 Beretta with the busted headlight and pulling into the parking lot of my overcrowded, understaffed high school on the west side of Detroit; sneaking through broken metal detectors half an hour early to hustle fried chicken wings, Snickers bars and Capri Suns in the back hallway for spending change; closing up shop and running to class 15 minutes late while trying to avoid slipping on the unknown liquid dripping from the leaky roof.

Now I sip Starbucks white mocha lattes every morning in my all-expense paid, cozy dorm room, lugging around textbooks and coursepacks instead of candy bars and juice boxes.

It’s amazing how an acceptance letter from the University of Michigan and a pair of Ugg boots can change a girl.

I promised myself long ago that I would never go back to selling chicken wings in the hallway to make money; that when I graduate I would trade in my busted Beretta for a 2009 BMW M3 convertible; that I would ditch my “exotic dancing,” baby-mama-drama-having friends and surround myself with more professional, goal-oriented, college-educated buddies. I told my mom that she would never need a Bridge Card again. I told my grandma that she wouldn’t have to live across the street from a drug house anymore.

I promised myself that when I made it out of the hood, I would never go back. My dilemma is that I also promised my community that when I made it out, I would reach back.

Like so many other students who come from underprivileged communities, I am charged with the task of using my education to escape from poverty, while helping those who are still caught in the struggle of economic inequality.

Programs like Teach For America are designed to give enthusiastic, creative and energized recent college graduates the opportunity to go into underprivileged urban communities and help make a difference. Unfortunately, everyone knows that teachers are overworked, underpaid and unappreciated.

This stigma keeps those students that the program really needs from applying. Candidates who come from underdeveloped communities themselves can make the biggest impact on students, but tend to shy away from the idea of teaching because of its reputation for being low-paying and unglamorous. According to the Teach For America website, 25 percent of participants are Pell grant recipients, typically meaning that they come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. My guess is that the other 75 percent are middle-class liberals and law-school rejects.

It’s great that these students want to give back to the community, but kids in these areas need to be able to look at their teachers as more than just teachers. Kids need role models, mentors and people who can inspire them to strive for educational and moral excellence. They need to look in that teacher’s face and see a mirror.

I could move my family into a big house in the suburbs with a white picket fence. I could live that good life Kanye West talks about and never think about my old neighborhood in Detroit again. It’s easy to get brainwashed into believing that I worked hard to get where I am without anyone’s help.

No one picketed and marched for me to have the freedom to attend college. No one got attacked by dogs for me to be able to drink from any water fountain I want. No one was beaten by police officers for me to have the right to vote. No one was murdered for me to be able to move my family into that suburban home.


I like my Uggs, my Starbucks white mocha latte and my future cherry red BMW M3 convertible, but I can’t pretend like I don’t know about the problems happening right next door to my house in Detroit. I have to acknowledge the harsh reality that I am only a scholarship away from being condemned to a life of poverty and oppression myself. I am constantly reminded that I do owe something every time I visit my old high school, volunteer at the Boys and Girls club or watch the news. I can’t become so engulfed in my own desire for wealth that I forget who I am and where I came from.

This is the charge to students from underprivileged communities. This is why I am applying to Teach For America.

Shakira Smiler can be reached at stsmiler@umich.edu.

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