The late eighties were boom years on Wall Street, as the stock market climbed and the dollar strengthened. Venture capital firms and the first hedge funds cropped up; savvy traders earned seven-digit bonus checks. On the back of the success of “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and the popularity of Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” phenomenon made banking sexy. And major firms began aggressive recruitment schemes at top college campuses, seeking the best minds to return the highest figures.
Around the same time, Wendy Kopp, then an undergrad at Princeton in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, wrote an ambitious senior thesis. She envisioned a Peace Corps of teachers, a highly selective and prestigious program that would place college graduates for two-year stints in under-resourced and under-staffed public schools.
Kopp saw her friends leave the Ivy League for white-shoe firms, all too happy to line their pockets and join the land of conspicuous consumption. She saw that as a problem.
Today, Teach for America (TFA), the product of Kopp’s thesis, is wildly successful by any standard. According to TFA’s website and promotional materials, nearly 19,000 college seniors applied last spring, including more than 10 percent of Yale’s graduating class. TFA turned more than 80 percent down, making it harder to get into than the University of Pennsylvania. A total of 4,400 corps members are currently teaching in 25 urban and rural areas.
Its participants speak of the corps in beatific terms: according to them, TFA is the hardest job on the block, and the most rewarding. “In terms of my mindset and my confidence, Teach for America has been life-changing for me,” says Kristi L. Jobson ’06, a former FM editor who now teaches middle school students in the Bronx.
The non-profit competes for self-starting, hard working leaders who can think on their feet with the big boys of Harvard recruiting. And TFA, by way of the districts they teach in, offers as little as $25,000 in compensation per year, a mere quarter of what a first-year analyst at a top firm can expect.
In her memoir, “One Day, All Children: The Unlikely Triumph of Teach for America and What I Learned Along the Way,” Kopp wrote that she started the company with a rallying cry: “We are a group of recent graduates who believe that today’s brightest, most motivated students of every race and academic major should join together to help the United States...”
And from the beginning, that vision meant convincing over-achieving students to turn down oak-paneled offices for cement walls and playgrounds. In a letter to applicants, the fledgling corps wrote: “[We] passed up jobs in management consulting and investment banking and Senators’ offices to create” TFA. Kopp set out to convince students to do the same.
Fighting for the Best
Teach for America faces a problem: how do you lure top students at top schools away from cushy jobs? The solution it has found involves targeting apt candidates and pursuing them with Kopp’s zeal.
It can’t be just anyone. “There are a lot of people who could survive two years in a public school,” Jobson says. “But TFA isn’t interested in people who can survive. They’re interested in people who can move kids’ reading levels. Only the top people can do that.”
Among the characteristics the corps seeks in applicants, according to its promotional materials, are “demonstrated past achievement,” “desire to work relentlessly in pursuit of our mission,” and “strong critical thinking skills.”
To snare the students, the corps gleaned its basic on-campus strategy from other major campus recruiters, with giveaways and glad-handing sessions. “TFA tries to look at project models. Like, how does Goldman Sachs get a lot of people to apply?” Jobson says. “They have fancy ads in The Crimson and they have nice dinners or whatever to get the word out.”
At the Office of Career Services Career Forum last week, TFA printed glossy pamphlets and situated itself among the banks. Its smiling and encouraging staff handed out pens and candy, offering to answer questions. The company maintains ground troops for this purpose; although TFA has no corps members in Massachusetts, it keeps an office in Cambridge to aid recruiting.
The lynch-pin of the corps’ on-campus recruitment is the “campus campaign manager,” a student the company hires to spread the TFA gospel. At Harvard, managers like Jobson seek out leaders from the Phillips Brooks House Association and publications like Let’s Go. They poster, e-mail, call, set up information sessions, and form groups on Facebook.
The application process itself mirrors standard online recruitment: seniors fill out an exhaustive online application, and later go through interviews and mock teaching sessions. At the interview, recruiters ask off-beat questions to quash pre-packaged answers.
One famous question, first used in TFA’s inaugural year, was “What is wind?... Don’t describe it, just tell me what it is.” The recruiters wanted to figure out if the student was confident, if she could think outside of the box, if he would buckle under pressure.
Thomas M. McSorley Jr. ’06, who teaches special education at an elementary school in Washington D.C., describes the demonstrable effort TFA showed in recruiting him: “People in the Science Center offered to meet with me. And the night before the actual interview, one of the recruitment directors came around and gave me a mug with candy in it—a branded thing.”
The idea behind the strategy is consonant with TFA’s mission: letting one Harvard senior waffle on TFA is like letting one kid in a TFA classroom fall through the cracks. It can’t happen.
“Sometimes I would think to myself, why are we recruiting so aggressively?” Jobson says. “Now I understand. I’m not even at the most challenging school. I don’t have kids with behavioral problems. I don’t have kids on drugs. But this is the fucking hardest job in the world.”
Sticking It to the Man
This year, OCS is offering Harvard students 295 distinct jobs via online recruiting. 249 are for starting positions or internships at financial service companies. A solid third are at investment banks.
Even given the glut of jobs, the ease of applying, and the purported $10,000 “golden hello” signing bonus at the banks, Harvard grads are moving to rough neighborhoods and teaching in under-resourced classrooms in record numbers.
TFA is one of the largest single employers of Harvard students at graduation—a testament to the company’s prestige and its recruitment effort. “The TFA teachers I know are overachievers on their campuses. They just try, just like consulting kids. They are go-getters,” McSorley says. “But they also felt that call to do something with some heart.”
And perhaps most importantly, TFA has built a reputation. Within six months of its founding, TFA appeared on the front page of The New York Times. In the past year, it’s been in articles in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and in half a dozen national magazines. And the corps advertises that many investment banks and consulting firms, including Bain, McKinsey, and Morgan Stanley, allow students to defer their jobs instead of turning the dollar down.
Kopp writes in her book that the corps has succeeded because it offers a little “idealism for the Me generation.” Between that and its pointed recruitment tactics, TFA has become known as a way for overachievers to give back without necessarily giving anything up—and it’s giving the corporations a run for their money.