Samirah Ali wears a niqab, a full veil covering her face, as she walks the halls of Democracy Prep, a public charter school in one of the poorest sections of Washington, D.C.
She is one of the first four UMGC graduates ever to be selected by Teach for America, and Ali believes she was chosen because she represents so many minority groups in the United States.
"I was born in the West Indies, raised in America, and am ethnically Indian, and a Muslim who wears a veil," she said. "I feel like all of those things made me a very different kind of candidate."
Not to mention, she came back to the Washington, D.C., area for her two-year Teach for America commitment from Saudi Arabia, where her husband teaches at King Saud University.
A 2013 UMGC graduate with a degree in psychology, Ali said she has been teaching since she was 13 in her mosque, at summer camps, and for preschools.
Why Teach for America? "I believe in the cause: social justice through equality of education."
In her classroom, Ali can remove her veil as long as no men are present. She said she explained to the children that she wears the veil to show her respect for God. And her kindergartners have become protective of her.
"The kids will say, 'Ms. Ali, someone is coming! There is a man at the door. Get your veil, get your veil!'" But she doesn't have to worry, she said, because the men at the school are respectful of her custom.
And if one of the special education children in the class gets upset when she has her veil on, she said, "I pull him to the side, lift up my veil, and smile at him. He says, 'Oh, yes, it's you, Ms. Ali,' and everything is better."
The 25-year-old Teach for America program has a mission of recruiting high-performing college graduates to teach some of the hardest-to-reach students, in schools that are trying to overcome poverty and low expectations.
The program has become so highly sought after by recent graduates that it accepted only 15 percent of this year's 44,000 applicants, according to spokeswoman Elora Tocci. In general, education majors make up only a small number of those accepted annually. Once admitted to the program, Teach for America corps members undergo intense training for a summer. They are then sent to schools around the country for a two-year commitment and should earn their teaching credentials by commitment's end.
Teach for America has a reputation for recruiting from Ivy League and other traditional brick-and-mortar schools, where academic life and extracurricular activities are campus based. The program proudly promotes the large number of student-body presidents, varsity athletes, presidents of multicultural fraternities and sororities, and other campus leaders who make up its ranks.
UMGC, which primarily serves active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and other busy professionals juggling careers with academic life—and often family life—does not offer the same campus-based opportunities.
Yet this year, four UMGC graduates were accepted, and according to Tocci, they represent a change in what Teach for America is seeking. "People who have backgrounds like UMGC are a growing presence in the corps," she said.
"About a third of our incoming corps members joined with professional experience rather than straight out of undergrad. We look for people who have a strong record of achievement in their jobs, who are leaders in their current roles, who work well with others, who have a demonstrated interest in volunteering and serving communities, and who have prioritized education throughout their lives."
No one offers Teach for America a less-traditional background than Gary Goines. While working for the U.S. Capitol Police Department, he earned a UMGC bachelor's degree in criminology in 1989 and a second bachelor's in psychology in 1991.
He had been on the Capitol Police's SWAT and hostage rescue teams. But in 1998, after his colleagues John Gibson and J.J. Chestnut were gunned down by an intruder in the U.S. Capitol, he began studying active shooters to better understand what motivates them and how to intervene to prevent them.
Goines earned a master's degree in forensic psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. That coursework spurred interest in understanding child development, and he is now midway toward another online degree, this one in family and human development at Arizona State University.
That's a long way around to the South Orlando, Florida, school system as part of the Teach for America corps this fall. While Goines was doing coursework online, a notice about Teach for America popped up on his e-mail, just as he was planning his retirement after 30 years with the Capitol Police and anticipating a move to Orlando.
"They seemed to be impressed with the work I had done with kids on the street in D.C. and at the Oakhill Juvenile Detention Center," Goines said. "They were just opening a new program in Orlando."
He started out working with second graders at Molly Rae Elementary School, which has a student population of Hispanics, African Americans, and a mixture of immigrants from many countries.
"The biggest thing I get out of TFA is the impact on students," he said. "On lunch breaks they would swarm around me and want to talk. We are able to expose them to different things they were never exposed to, like the possibility of going to college."
For the long term, he said, he wants to continue working with elementary school students while teaching criminal psychology online—preferably at UMGC. "I could tell my [college] students I was in your place at one time," he said. "I am a product of UMGC."
Like Gary Goines, Sergeant First Class John Schlag recently retired after 31 years with the U.S. Army. He studied online at UMGC from 2010 to 2013, earning a bachelor's degree in social science.
"I noticed around the world in a lot of the places where I had served that there were a lot of educational inequities in a lot of countries," he said. "That led me to look at some of the inequities in our country. I was appalled at what I saw—the illiteracy rate and the access to education, or lack of access for people of color or lower socio-economic status."
But, he said, he thought that being accepted by Teach for America was beyond his grasp. "It was an outside shot. The competition was kids from these Ivy League schools and Stanford. I thought I didn't stand a chance."
Apparently Teach for America has shifted gears and was going through its own transition, Schlag said. "They wanted to do a veterans outreach and find people with a little more life experience to bring into education."
And now that he is teaching sixth-grade special education at Kory Hunter Middle School, a charter school that's part of Alliance College Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles, California, he said he sees how the life experience helps. "This is the hardest job I have ever had in my life," he said. "I think fighting terrorists overseas is easier than this."
The literacy level is low and the students can be difficult, Schlag explained. His most difficult day so far included being socked in the chin by a seventh-grade girl while breaking up a fight in the hallway. "And I still woke up the next day and went to work."
But this "hardest job" ever is what he is committed to doing in his military retirement years, he said. And he is working on getting a teaching certificate and looking at administrative positions in the future.
Brandon Quarles started his college career at the University of Arkansas but dropped out to join the Marine Corps. He was attracted to UMGC while stationed in Washington, D.C., and finished an undergraduate degree in English a year ago.
Some of those courses were completed while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Once, when he lost communication, he frantically contacted his professor, who assured him that she understood. That was nothing new for an instructor at UMGC.
At 29, as he planned to leave the Corps as a sergeant after eight years, some of his fellow Marines encouraged him to consider teaching. "I had a lot of responsibilities in my unit getting new guys up to speed on new programs and making sure they met all the standards," Quarles said. "The consensus was I would be a good teacher. I should try that."
A federal program called Troops to Teachers got him in touch with Teach for America. He left the Corps a year ago in September and was accepted by the program in January. He moved his family from Camp Pendleton, California, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, before the school year started and is now teaching fifth grade math and science at Marshall Elementary in one of Tulsa's poorer neighborhoods.
"Our school is about a third Hispanic, a third African American, and a third Caucasian," he said, "but the one thing [the students] have in common is they are on the low end of the poverty scale."
The school had been struggling for years with low test scores and high teacher turnover, he said. It wanted to head out in a new direction and decided to bring in a lot of Teach for America corps members to see if that would help make a difference.
So how has his Marine training prepared him? Marines are disciplined, he said. That's what these students need, and they have responded to it greatly. And the Marines, he said, taught him a lot about time management and dealing with stress, something that teachers desperately need.
"[When you're] a teacher, people think you come in at 8:00 and are off at 3:30," he said. "But you are really working all day, every day. You have to be able to keep time management control."
After all, he also has a wife and three young children to raise. But he doesn't regret his decision. He sees himself working with younger children in the future because first graders would benefit from a strong male presence, he said.
"I would love to stay in the classroom as long as they let me," he said. "More good people from UMGC should look into this program."