Internships in D.C. and China inspire education reform career

Lisa Chen’s college path was always aimed at making a difference in the world, and she imagined attending law school immediately after Cornell. But three significant internships–combined with majors in international relations, women’s studies, and politics–changed her course to educational policy, beginning with teaching in one of the country’s most challenging schools.

Lisa Chen
Lisa Chen ’12

The first step after graduation for the Cerritos, Calif. native is a two-year assignment with Teach For America (TFA) in New York City, where she will teach history and politics in a low-income high school. After earning her masters through TFA, Chen envisions working as a legislative director for a Congresswoman, focusing on education and other social policies. Her Cornell preparation positions her very well for this possibility.

As a sophomore, Chen spent a semester interning at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. While she valued the experience, she also realized she didn’t want to work in such a bureaucratic or hierarchical environment.

A few months later she explored a more hands-on role through a Cornell Fellowship with the Red Cross Society of China, focusing especially on their work with HIV/AIDS education and prevention. She helped organize a week-long conference for HIV/AIDS outreach workers and spent two weeks in remote Ning Xia province assessing the results of Red Cross Society projects, such as improved hygiene facilities and education in secondary schools.

“It was an unforgettable experience, and it was inspiring to be part of an organization that is making such a difference in the lives of Chinese citizens,” Chen said. “But it also made me realize that there are social problems everywhere and that I should work domestically and make improvements closer to home.”

A special topics course on education policy, taught by Steve Hemelt, helped her recognize the ways in which education policies are connected to income levels, social mobility, and other social issues. From there it was back to D.C. again, this time for a summer internship in Congressman Dave Loebsack’s office, where all the pieces began to fit together.

“I worked closely with one of Congressman Loebsack’s legislative assistants who dealt specifically with education and women’s issues. She was extremely helpful in providing me with different opportunities to attend Congressional hearings and briefings whenever one of those issues appeared on the Hill. Through this internship, I was able to learn a significant amount and solidify my interest in working for the Legislative branch one day in the near future,” she said.

Chen never thought she had the patience to be a teacher. But in Hemelt’s class, she was inspired by the book “Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America.” Speaking at length with Cornell alumni in TFA and reading many blog posts from TFA teachers gave her a better understanding of the experience and the inspiration to apply.

“They all say the same thing: ‘It’s hard. It’s a struggle every day.’ But they believe in the mission that every child deserves a fair and proper education, and that this is the best way to alleviate poverty and deal with inequality. Believing in the mission helps them stay motivated every day.”

Chen said she’s thankful for the small atmosphere and close relationships with professors that helped her along the path, through good times and bad. “It pushes you to work harder when there are people who care about you,” Chen said.

She’s also grateful for all the opportunities at Cornell to travel abroad, gain funding for internships, and participate in a variety of activities on campus, ranging from cheerleading to middle school tutoring to serving as a peer advisor.

“I did everything I could and made the most of my opportunities. When I talk to friends at bigger schools, they’re so happy if they get funding for even one thing. Here you can really try a little bit of everything, and as long as you push yourself nothing is unattainable.”

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