Columbus State University represents one-third of the inaugural class of college students in a state program that is part of a larger effort to improve the quality of math and science teachers.
Kennesaw State University and Piedmont College are the other institutions in Georgia's first cohort participating in the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship. The 12 CSU students among the state's 36 Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows, listed with their major and residence, are:
Allen Clarkson, biology, Darien, Ga.
Kelly Colburn, math, Smiths Station, Ala.
Olivia (Blair) Fine, biology, Lawrenceville, Ga.
Brandon Hewitt, math, Atlanta, Ga.
Ashley Hunter, chemistry, Columbus, Ga.
Mark Kagika, math, Austell, Ga.
Autumn McMunn, math, Florence, Ala.
Brian Moler, math, Cheyenne, Wyo.
Lauren Pace, biology, Milledgeville, Ga.
Althea Roy, chemistry, Stone Mountain, Ga.
Marcus Stevens, math/physics, Senoia, Ga.
Melissa Youngs, chemistry/biology minor, Milledgeville, Ga.
Deborah Gober, professor of mathematics education and program director for CSU's Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship, said this group is impressive.
"Faculty have commented that the Fellows are some of the best students they have ever taught," Gober said in a news release. "They have demonstrated a great passion for and commitment to learning and teaching as they began their coursework and clinical experiences this summer."
The program recruits recent graduates and career changers with strong backgrounds in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) and prepares them to teach in high-need secondary schools. For example, Hunter worked for the past five years as a scientist in research and development at Cott Beverages in Columbus.
"I left my job to pursue my passion for teaching, not because my job wasn't fun or cool; I've just always wanted to be in the classroom teaching," Hunter, 28, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Friday.
Hunter graduated from Tuscaloosa County (Ala.) High School in 2004 and earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Auburn University in 2009. Her parents dissuaded her from immediately pursuing a teaching career, she said.
"They understood that the job of a teacher is tough and typically not well-compensated," she said. "They just wanted me to be as successful as possible and want for nothing. I understood what they were saying and deferred to their authority. I'm glad I did because I learned things and met people I never would have otherwise. I'm going back to teaching now because the opportunity became available and I believe I'm gifted to do it."
The Fellows receive $30,000 to complete a master's degree based on a one-year classroom experience. In return, the Fellows commit to teach for three years in urban or rural Georgia schools needing strong STEM teachers. The Fellows receive support and mentoring during those three years.
"I love that I get to observe many teachers and that I'll have a full year of classroom experience before I ever step foot in a classroom alone," Hunter said. "Plus, the people at the Woodrow Wilson Foundation are with me for my first years in the classroom, as well as those at CSU, making the transition less frightening. I'm glad to know that I'm not doing it alone.
"Also, the fact that the fellowship provides money to go back to school was essential for me to make this step. I couldn't have quit my job to pursue education without some assistance. I'm so grateful."
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal said in the release, "Our schools are our most strategic investment in the future. I'm confident these educators share my belief that every child can learn and should have access to an education that prepares them for college, the workforce and beyond. The inaugural class of Georgia Teaching Fellows will gain the training necessary to serve as a lifeline for students to a high-quality education, and I'm grateful to the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation for its investment in our state's students."
The Woodrow Wilson Foundation, based in Princeton, N.J., is administering the program, with in-state coordination by the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education and financial support from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, which donated $9.36 million for the first four years of the state's program. The fellowships also are available in Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey and Ohio. With the addition of Georgia, a total of nearly $90 million is being invested in all the fellowships in the five participating states.
"The future success of our communities, our schools and our children depends on a strong teacher workforce prepared for the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century classroom," Woodrow Wilson Foundation president Arthur Levine said in the release. "Through a wide range of efforts, Georgia has demonstrated its commitment to school improvement and closing achievement gaps. The Woodrow Wilson Foundation welcomes this year's class of Fellows and is excited about working with Georgia universities and school districts to help improve teacher preparation and to ensure that every Georgia child has excellent teachers year after year."
The foundation selected the participating universities. Georgia State University and Mercer University also will offer the fellowships starting in the 2016-17 academic year. The program is part of the University System of Georgia's goal to prepare 20,000 new teachers by 2020.
"The Georgia Partnership has long supported strategies to improve teacher effectiveness," Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education president Steve Dolinger said in the release. "The Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellowship will not only help improve the teacher training programs at five universities in partnership with several of their local school systems but will also produce more STEM teachers for our state. Both goals are timely for Georgia. We are proud to help coordinate these efforts over the next several years."
All of which makes Hunter proud to be among the state's first Fellows.
"I strive for the best of myself and want my students to do the same," she said. "I guess you could say I want to be a light in the darkness. I'm hoping to light many little candles along the way."