Thirty years in the Marine Corps taught Sequoia Aldridge a few things about adapting and overcoming the toughest of challenges, and now she’s bringing these skills to her next mission: teaching science to seventh graders.
The retired Chief Warrant Officer 5 recently transitioned from a career as a personnel officer to that of shaping young minds through Teach for America's Military Veterans Initiative, which this November marks its third year recruiting, training and placing vets in the nation's highest-need schools.
"It's something which gives me so much personal satisfaction," she said. "At the end of a long day, you're passing on something which you hope will be following into someone's life."
Aldridge, who teaches classes of 20 to 30 children at E.B. Frink Middle School in La Grange, North Carolina, is one of almost 300 other veterans who have enlisted in the program as they’ve made the switch to civilian life.
They bring to the table a set of life skills set that makes them among some of the most effective teachers in the Teach for America program, according to program initiative director Eryn Monticure.
"Veterans know what it means to work towards a common goal, and that, in a mission, everyone has a role to play," she said.
Additionally, Monticure said vets' strong leadership skills, organizational ability and experience working in diverse settings mean they are prepared to adapt to their students' life situations, which often go beyond the lesson plan.
"It’s a hefty job ahead of you," she said. "It’s a mission, — a goal to change kids’ lives."
It’s also an objective that which cuts to the core of national service.
The nonprofit Teach for America was formed in 1990 to counter growing educational inequalities faced by children in the nation's poorest communities. By recruiting college graduates and professionals, and providing immersive training and ongoing mentorship, the program aimed to fast-track educators into underfunded schools.
The two-year teaching commitment comes with full salary and benefits on par with other first-year teachers, and opens a pathway into a career in education.
From 500 teachers in its first year, the program has grown today to 8,600 members teaching in 52 urban and rural regions across the country, as well as a 42,000-member alumni network actively engaged in education.
This means that veterans currently make up approximately one1 percent of the program, but that’s a figure Monticure intends to grow.
"In 2012 we began to see a significant growth in veterans' applications, so we took a close look at that," she said. "What we heard was that their desire to serve didn't end with their military service."
The organization then launched the Military Veterans Initiative with the slogan "You Served for America, Now Teach for America" and hit the pavement to bring vets on board.
Aldridge, who has long had an interest in education, first learned of the program at a transition briefing prior to her Nov. 2014 retirement. Its mission struck a chord with her.
"My job was to take care of people who served; I existed to take care of Marines," she said. "That part comes naturally."
Aldridge admits she was terrified the first time she stepped in front of a classroom, but it didn't take long for her instincts to kick in.
She planned class time down to the minute and task-organized, dividing students for labs into small groups with randomly designated team leaders so they could learn from their peers.
"It's having the order and discipline to some extent, but more than that, it's leadership and setting the example, helping them become student leaders."
In doing so, her hope is to instill responsibility for education in her students.
"I try to teach these beautiful minds to take it one question at a time, like [in the Marines] you take it one heel at a time, one mile at a time and stay on task," she said.