Through 'Teach for America,' Donald Rucker hopes to have positive impact

May 15, 2012
Contact: Maryville College Office of Communications

Donald Rucker is the quintessential ‘man about campus’ at Maryville College, involved in many pursuits, providing service to others and leading by example.

Recently named the College’s 2012 “Outstanding Senior” at an April 14 award ceremony and a 2012 recipient of the J.D. Davis Award for student-athletes, Rucker’s collegiate resume is incredibly impressive: president of the Class of 2012, Homecoming King, a regular on the Dean’s List, a regionally recognized varsity basketball player, member of the respected Off Kilter vocal ensemble and member of the Maryville College Concert Choir. He’s also participated in the College’s Student Government Association, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Global Citizenship Organization.

“Everyone on campus knows Donald,” says his advisor Dr. Crystal Colter, associate professor of psychology. “I think he’s probably the most extraordinary student I’ve seen here in 12 years, and I don’t say that lightly.”

True to Rucker’s nature, he shrugs off praise of his accomplishments with humility.

“[The Outstanding Senior Award] was a surprise. I wasn’t expecting it,” said Rucker, a child development and learning for teacher licensure major. “I give credit to Maryville College. [Faculty and staff] push their students to do many things.”

And now as he prepares to graduate May 20, he’s been chosen for another remarkable opportunity: to teach in the nationally recognized program Teach For America, which places high achieving college graduates into poverty stricken communities to provide those students with an excellent education.

TFA is competitive program

According to the TFA’s website, 5,100 students were selected in 2011 from more than 460 colleges and universities across the country.

“Specifically, we're looking for people with strong leadership potential and other strengths demonstrated by the most successful teachers in our program,” the website notes.

Teach For America, a national nonprofit, was founded by CEO Wendy Kopp after she proposed the initiative in her 1989 undergraduate senior thesis at Princeton University. The organization was formed the next year and since that time has had almost 33,000 teachers make the two-year commitment, educating more than three million children.

Another of Rucker’s professors, Associate Professor of Elementary Education Dr. Alesia Orren said that applicants face tremendous competition to get accepted into the program.

Teachers commit to a two-year engagement and receive intense training to prepare for their roles. “It’s set up to pull out the best and the brightest,” Orren explained. Once applicants are admitted into the program, Teach For America helps them further develop the skills and abilities they already have.

“He’s going to be pushed to his limits. I know he’s going to rise to that challenge,” Orren said. “He’ll keep the mission in mind.”

Rucker said that at this point, he knows that he will be assigned to an elementary school in Alabama, but he won’t know exactly where until June. TFA is not just for education majors, but also for people who are going into other professions, Rucker said. The mission is to transform the communities and provide quality education to students at these low performing schools, he added.

“I’m really excited about the next two years and working for Teach For America.”

Prepared to teach

Rucker did his student teaching for a second grade class at Alcoa Elementary School and Maryville Intermediate School, where he taught fifth grade math.

“I feel so prepared to go out and be a teacher,” he said.

Rucker, who comes from a family of educators, didn’t initially pursue a degree in education. At family gatherings, he was exposed to discussions that centered on the latest academic developments, but he wanted to explore other options in college. For the first two years, he was a math major but eventually switched to education and figured something out.

“I really want to teach, and I really enjoy education,” he said.

Orren, who has observed Rucker during his student teaching classes, is confident in the future teacher.

“He’s always so reflective in searching to be better within himself,” she said.

As with many student teachers entering the field, Orren said it’s disheartening for Rucker to see children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have the kind of family support that he had growing up.

“It’s really been tough for Donald to work with kids from broken homes,” Orren said. “He’s so empathic.”

Rucker agreed that it can be difficult, but he also sees it as an opportunity to reach out to young students who are dealing with self-esteem issues, much as he did as a child. At that age, a child’s feelings of self-worth can be built up or broken, he said, and he wants to have a positive impact on a child’s life.

“Those stories and students – they break your heart,” he said, adding that he knows he is doing the right thing with his life – a lesson he learned the summer before his senior year. Rucker taught English in rural China, working with students in terrible living situations. He said the experience rejuvenated him as he headed into his final year of college.

“The kids were so grateful, but they had nothing,” he recalled. “They were teaching me more than I was teaching them.”

Feeling blessed

Rucker said many professors at Maryville College have helped him along this journey. He’s known Colter since his first year of college when he took her FRS120: Perspectives on the Individual course, which examined such concepts as vocation, life goals, ethics and personal identity.

“He was incredibly impressive from day one,” Colter said, adding that he seems to have shown up on campus as a freshman with a good work ethic already in place and a compassionate side – traits that makes him a perfect candidate to be a teacher.

“He seems wise beyond his years. He’s more sophisticated than some of my grown up friends,” Colter said with a laugh.

Last summer as Rucker considered his post-graduation options, he decided to apply for Teach For America and learned in November that he had been accepted. His father is a middle school principal back in his hometown of Cartersville, Ga., and Rucker has also contemplated pursuing the administrative side of education, particularly higher up, where the decisions are made. His dream job is to be a statewide superintendent of education where he can direct policy issues.

In spite of the work and effort Rucker has had to put in to succeed at this level, he keeps it all in perspective.

“I feel really blessed that I’ve been able to do all this. I think Maryville College is a special, magical place,” Rucker said. “It’s going to be hard to leave. It’s been an incredible journey these four years.”

This story was written by Bonny Millard, a freelance writer for the Office of Communications.

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,198.