‘Education is about opening doors’: Rice president, graduate detail impact of Teach For America

Reginald DesRoches, Teach for America Ignite luncheon
Reginald DesRoches at Teach For America luncheon
Rice President Reginald DesRoches speaks to the crowd at Teach For America's annual Ignite Potential luncheon. (Photos by Hung L. Truong Photography LLC)

“Education dramatically changed my life,” Rice University President Reginald DesRoches told a crowd of nearly 300 at Teach For America’s annual Ignite Potential luncheon Feb. 21 at the Briar Club in Houston.

Chaired by Colin and Sangita Pogge, the event featuring DesRoches as keynote speaker and education advocate Janet Clark as honoree, sought to raise money for and awareness about Teach For America’s impact on the Houston community.

“I can tell you from personal experience that what you and everyone at Teach For America does makes a difference,” DesRoches said.

In his keynote, DesRoches reflected on the profound impact of education on his life, shaped by the unwavering determination of his parents to provide opportunities for their children despite their own lack of formal education. Moving from Haiti to the United States, his parents made sacrifices to ensure their children received a quality education.

Reginald DesRoches at Teach For America luncheon

“By working double shifts and on the weekends, my parents were able to send us to Catholic school and outstanding colleges, which for me was on the other side of the country at the University of California, Berkeley,” DesRoches said.

At Berkeley, he found support and community through programs like the Professional Development Program (PDP), designed to assist first-generation and at-risk students in STEM fields. This supportive environment not only aided in academic success but also fostered a sense of belonging and camaraderie crucial for minority students.

“The most important thing that the program did was allow us to build a community, which is often difficult for black and brown kids in STEM,” DesRoches said. “You could ask questions without the insecurities we normally feel and realize that others had the same questions.”

He said his experiences with community-building initiatives like PDP and the National Society of Black Engineers played a pivotal role in shaping his career trajectory, ultimately inspiring him to pursue academia over industry. Teaching at a community college further solidified his passion for education, emphasizing the transformative power of learning and the importance of fostering supportive communities in educational settings.

“The hard-earned opportunities my siblings and I were able to pursue must be afforded to all, but this will only happen when institutions of higher education step up their efforts to profoundly and measurably boost diversity, equity and inclusion on their campuses,” DesRoches said. “These initiatives must do more than just open the door for those previously barred or underserved. We must create and maintain a place for everyone at the table, a community where all feel fully welcomed and empowered.”

Teach For America, DesRoches said, is making this happen across the country, including in Houston.

Group at Teach For America luncheon

“The work you do provides educational opportunities to kids who might otherwise not have the chance to gain a foundational education,” he said. “Much like Rice, your mission is to better the world through knowledge, discovery and scholarship. And like you, we believe everyone should have a shot at their dreams.”

Dreams are certainly something Molly Wancewicz brought with her to Rice. The 2021 graduate, who is now a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Belgium, tackled coursework that helped her chart a career path combining her interest in public education with her passion for workers’ rights.

“Through some excellent courses in the history, political science and environmental studies department, I gained an academic understanding of the intertwinement of education and labor,” Wancewicz said. “This allowed me to see how teaching — something I always thought was important but couldn’t envision fitting into my career — could align with my academic and professional goals.”

After graduating summa cum laude with a double major in political science and history, Wancewicz signed up for Teach For America, landing at Fondren Middle School in the Houston Independent School District. She described the experience as both challenging and rewarding.

“I was fortunate in that I entered the teaching profession with eyes wide open: My mother is also a sixth-grade teacher and has taught in public schools for her entire career,” Wancewicz said. “With her insight, I was able to anticipate many of the challenges I’d face, including the persistent under-resourcing of public schools and frequent disconnects between policy and reality on the ground. Despite the obstacles, I absolutely loved my students and found joy and fulfillment in helping them grow.”

Many of those students were learning English as a second language, preparing Wancewicz for her eventual Fulbright placement.

Molly Wancewicz
Rice alumna Molly Wancewicz, now a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Belgium, signed up for Teach For America after graduating. (Photo courtesy Molly Wancewicz)

“All of my students in Brussels are learning English as a second, third or fourth language, so I’ve found that many skills and strategies are transferable,” Wancewicz said. “While becoming certified and through my two years of teaching, I learned a lot about pedagogy and acquired a good amount of content knowledge, and this knowledge has served me well as I’ve transitioned to teaching in this new environment.”

Now Wancewicz is preparing for her next challenge — law school — after which she plans to pursue a career in labor law.

“My Teach For America experience serves to remind me of labor law’s far-reaching impact,” Wancewicz said.

For her, education was a catalyst for personal growth and societal change, echoing DesRoches’s call for institutions to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure all individuals have access to transformative educational opportunities.

“Providing young people with a path to receive a top-notch education is transformative,” DesRoches said. “It is about far more than just learning how to apply mathematics, passing an organic chemistry class or reading Aristotle. Education is about opening young minds and challenging our beliefs. Education is about opening doors — doors that you never believed would be open for you. Education is about conversing and creating friendships with people who come from a variety of different backgrounds and with a wide range of perspectives and experiences. It is being around these diverse people that create improved ideas, self- and other-awareness and critical thinking skills that last a lifetime.”

Learn more about Teach for America here.