Birmingham to Beijing: You Need to Know

When I heard about what Wyatt Smith is doing for six inner city students in Birmingham, I couldn’t wait to share with every person I know.

This summer, Wyatt Smith hopes to take Brian Alexander, Cinnamon Callins, De’Aquinetta Gill, Alexander Mays, Rodney Moore, and Kenneth Walton, juniors at a high school in Birmingham Ala., all the way to Beijing, China: a trip that he believes will change the trajectory of their lives. The achievement gap, he says, is really an exposure gap. After speaking with him recently, I wholeheartedly agree. Read on to see our recent interview.

Claire Gibson: What is your education background Wyatt, and how did you come to be a Teach for America teacher?

Wyatt Smith:  I studied political science and human and organizational development at Vanderbilt. I applied to Teach for America because I wanted the opportunity to come back to my home state of Alabama and pay forward the investment that others put into me. I actually was accepted [to TFA] in 2010, but received a deferral of that offer to pursue a traveling fellowship I’d received to study citizenship issues across the globe for one year. I traveled through 32 countries and met with leaders in business, politics, and academia about issues related to democratic institutions.

*Check out the UNBELIEVABLE program Vanderbilt offers one graduating senior every year here*

CG: So, when I was reading about your thoughts the achievement gap, you mentioned the “exposure gap.” What exactly is that?

WS: Ahh yes. The exposure gap is a challenge that I find to be a leading contributor to disparities in achievement. The students I teach often have a difficult time imagining different places, people, or ideas because their opportunities for travel and cultural exchange have been so limited. Their ability to imagine what’s possible, whether talking about historical events or college options, is limited by their exposure. So I see this opportunity as an important moment in these students’ learning processes, when they are able to close the gap that exists in our community to  exposure to different places and ideas. By doing so, I believe that they’ll be better leaders, thinkers, and ultimately, more successful people.
CG: So I understand that while you were traveling, you stopped in Beijing. What did you experience there? 

WS: I was in China for one month. The country’s educational model was one of the issues of interest to me, so I spent time visiting schools, including the Jiayu School that’s now hosting this opportunity. The Jiayu School piqued my interest because of it’s focus on international cultural exchange. Chinese students I met were planning to study in Boston and had such ambition for achievement. I thought that it presented a really interesting opportunity for future collaboration. I just wasn’t sure what that would look like at the time.

CG: So what does the opportunity look like for your students this summer? 

WS:  The opportunity is life-changing. They’ve been accepted to a Mandarin language and cultural immersion program in Beijing. There, they’ll be taking language classes for three hours each morning, engaging in service learning with Chinese peers in the afternoons, and experiencing cultural enrichment opportunities in the evenings. We’ll push them to grow as thinkers and leaders, broadening their cultural lens so that they might return to America as changed people, ready to continue this language study and build on this experience in college and beyond.

CG: Wow! How did you select the students to invite for the program?

WS:  First, I approached two of my high achieving students with the opportunity. Both have stellar academic records and they aspire towards the military academies. Then, I used my ACT prep class to introduce some blog posts on China in a reading comprehension unit. The students who came to me with follow up questions about the China blog posts then were introduced to the opportunity as well.
Each of them drafted two essays as a part of their applications to the program. Then, we submitted applications to the school in Beijing and the head of school conducted interviews of the students via Skype.

CG: So, what was their reaction when you first told them?  Did they believe you? Were they freaking out?

WS: By the time the students got accepted, they already had a pretty firm idea that they would likely be participating in the opportunity. We were already writing letters to potential donors, for example. But yeah, they were pretty excited when the news came. I think Kenneth Instagram’d his acceptance letter.

CG: Ha! That’s awesome. Okay, so speaking of donors, what is the cost of this program, and how much have you raised so far?

WS: The cost is $6k per student, or $36k in total. That includes travel, lodging, program costs, food, insurance, the works. We’ve raised just over half of that total in the past three weeks. We’re right around $18,500. We launched a campaign on, a crowdfunding site, that has been big boost. 

CG:  Did you ever think, when you joined TFA that you’d be taking six students to China after your first year?

WS: No. Absolutely not.  Laughs. My traveling fellowship, which introduced the connection to the school and gave me the confidence to launch an international trip, my students, who incredibly ambitious and hard working, and my school site, which is full of supportive administrators and faculty. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to merge two experiences–traveling and teaching–that have been foundational for me.

CG: Well I’m incredibly inspired by what you’re doing and how I know this will change these students’ lives. Thank you so much for letting me pick your brain a bit. I hope this little blog post will help! And while you’re in China, make sure to try some “rou jia mou” its like, the most delicious thing ever.

Please visit the “Birmingham to Beijing” webpage here, and donate, if you feel led.  As a Teach for America alumna, and an advocate for Chinese studies, I am wholeheartedly asking for your support for these kids.

Who knows.  Maybe your help will enable De’Anquinetta to earn her spot at USMA, like she dreams.  Maybe your support will get Rodney to Furman someday to study Mandarin. I hope so.

(Picture above, via)