USC Aiken Education Majors Meet with Members of Congress in DC

July 18, 2017

While some of their Pacer peers headed to the beach this summer, a couple of University of South Carolina Aiken School of Education students took a trip to the nation’s capital to participate in the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education Washington Week.

"Working with AACTE to advocate for higher education was really an honor. Not only did I learn how to build lasting relationships, present myself in a professional setting, and learn several policies in the course of a day, but I also learned to speak up for something tremendously important,” said Lindsey Calhoun.

“I learned that political advocacy is powerful, especially in our field. This experience made me appreciate the work our faculty put into our education so that we may become successful educators."

During the AACTE gathering, Calhoun and her colleague, fellow Pacer Alex Richardson, spent one day on Capitol Hill.  Before heading to the Hill, the students received briefings from AACTE leaders and congressional staffers on policy updates, training and resources so they could formulate ideas in advance of meeting their elected officials. Along with Dr. Judy Beck, dean of USC Aiken’s School of Education, Calhoun and Richardson – both of whom are CERRA Teaching Fellows -- met with Senate and House members from South Carolina to discuss important education policies and to advocate for education bills.

“I enjoyed sharing my ideas with our congressional leaders about certain pieces of legislation and policies that will affect South Carolina educators,” said Richardson, a secondary education major.  

“It was an honor to speak personally with Representative Joe Wilson and have an opportunity to advocate specifically for teacher prep programs.  Representatives love to hear directly from their constituents like myself who will be impacted by their policy decisions.” 

Richardson believes it important that future educators have the proper pre-service training and curriculum to gain the knowledge and skills needed for effective teaching in today’s diverse classrooms. 

“It’s one thing to have a mastery of your subject matter, but I believe it far better for student teachers to have courses that teach you how to teach, along with practicum opportunities to spend time in real classrooms under the supervision of an experienced mentor,” he said.

“Applying our learning of theory in the context of day-to-day teaching in a real classroom allows us to refine our delivery methods and classroom management skills. That is one thing that I am grateful for with the CERRA Teaching Fellows program at USC Aiken.”

The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, or CERRA, focuses on “increasing the number of students in the education pipeline and recruiting and retaining qualified, caring, and competent teachers,” according to its website. 

Funded by the S.C. General Assembly, it was created in 1985 by the Commission on Higher Education.  The CERRA Teaching Fellows program helps future educators achieve their dreams of being in the classroom – by providing financial assistance and access to professional development opportunities. 

As part of the program, in addition to working on a degree that will ultimately lead to teacher certification, these fellows must successfully complete 120 credit hours and maintain a minimum GPA of 2.75 during their undergraduate careers. In addition, once they’re certified these students agree to teach in the state of South Carolina one year for every year they received the fellowship. 

At the end of Richardson’s sophomore year, this rising junior had more than 100 hours of experience in area schools’ classrooms.   These enriching immersion opportunities gave him experience that directly relate to the subject he plans to teach at a local public high school after graduating from USC Aiken.

In addition to meeting with Wilson who serves Aiken’s population, Beck, Richardson and Calhoun also met with congressional staffers from Senator Lindsey Graham’s and Senator Tim Scott’s offices.  They also meet with staffers from the offices of Representatives Mark Sanford, Trey Gowdy, James Clyburn, Jeff Duncan, and Tom Rice.

Having the opportunity to share their professional insights and concerns with elected leaders at the highest levels of government was just part of the benefits of the visit.

“The trip to Washington, D.C. was also a wonderful opportunity to network outside of meetings, such as at dinner with other teacher educators and teacher candidates from South Carolina,” said Richardson. 

“I enjoyed getting to know deans of education of other colleges such as the Citadel, Benedict and USC Columbia."

Deans of education from colleges all across the country were in Washington during the AACTE week, along with a select number of students.  Each participant had the opportunity to meet with their respective state’s legislators on Capitol Hill.  

USC Aiken, a comprehensive university in the University of South Carolina system, offers undergraduate and master’s degrees to more than 3,500 students in 50 programs of study. USC Aiken is ranked the #1 public regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report’s guide "America’s Best Colleges." The 2017 distinction marks USC Aiken’s 19th consecutive ranking among the top three in this category and its 12th time in first place.