Wendy Kopp ’89

2022 Princeton Baccalaureate address by Wendy Kopp

Wendy Kopp, Class of 1989, is founder of Teach For America and Teach For All. She spoke from the pulpit on Sunday, May 22, at Princeton University’s 275th Baccalaureate service, held in the University Chapel.

—Remarks as prepared—

Wendy Kopp of the Class of 1989, founder of Teach For America and Teach For All, addressed Princeton University's Class of 2022 at their Baccalaureate service on Sunday, May 22, 2022.

Good afternoon. It’s such an honor to be with you on this occasion. Families, as a mom of four, I can begin to imagine how proud you are of your graduates. Faculty and staff, I hope you’re feeling so fulfilled about the role you’ve played in supporting these young people. And, Class of 2022, congratulations. Let’s hear it for you and each other.  

I would be tempted to call you all an activist generation. You’re graduating at a time when threats to the well-being of people and the planet are more visible than ever. Your generation, in particular, has been so active, weighing in about what justice requires. You are more committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and sustainability than any that has come before. And so, it’s tempting to call yours an activist generation. But looking out at you as soon-to-be graduates, it’s premature to define you. It’s the choices that you’re about to make, and that you’ll make in the coming years, about what to do with your time and energy, that will define you. 

So I’m grateful to have the chance to talk with you at this pivotal juncture — the commencement of your journey beyond Princeton’s walls, an occasion that for many will mark the first moment you’ve felt discretion over what to do with yourselves. I’m thinking back to my own graduation 33 years ago. Right after the ceremony, my parents drove me to New York City and dropped me off. I had two trash bags of clothes, a lamp, a futon, and a room in an apartment that I was going to share with other recent grads. Living off of a seed grant, I was going to spend my summer trying to work my way into the offices of educators, potential donors and anyone else who might be able to help get Teach For America off the ground. No one would be more surprised than I would have been, at that point, if you’d told me that I would still be pursuing the same mission 33 years later. I’m so grateful for the lessons I’ve fallen into along the way that have enabled this journey, and now, for the chance to share them with you in the hope that they’ll be helpful in informing your own choices.

As you’ve heard, my path began with my Princeton thesis. This said, I’m not the role model thesis writer President Eisgruber likely thought he was getting. I hadn’t given even a moment’s thought to what I would write about before late fall of my senior year. I was in a deep funk, which among other things led me into some sort of denial about the fact that I would need to write a thesis in order to graduate.

I was in this state of mind — this malaise — because I simply could not figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I’d applied to the sectors recruiting us liberal arts grads at the time, but was searching and searching for something else. I knew that by nature I was going to work relentlessly at whatever I did, and I just really wanted to be sure that all that work mattered.  

At some point I began fixating on the idea of putting my energy into the field of education. I had grown very conscious that it was my education — in a strong public school system and then at this fine institution — that had led me to feel a sense of freedom and that the whole world was open to me. I’d also become increasingly aware of the inequities in education, at Princeton of all places, as I’d seen here how differently prepared students were to thrive based on where they’d come from. So I looked into teaching in New York City public schools. I didn’t have much hope that this would be a possibility for a public policy major like myself but discovered that, in fact, it would be possible; if I waited until after Labor Day, the system would realize how many vacancies it had, at which point they would relax the typical licensure requirements. 

One day, in November of my senior year, this led to an inspiration — why weren’t we being recruited to teach as aggressively as we were being recruited to work in banks? I had a deep sense that I was not alone — that thousands of other graduating seniors of all different majors were also searching for meaningful post-graduation pursuits. Wouldn’t teaching be the one that most called on our leadership and gave us the most immediate path to impact? I couldn’t stop thinking about the power in this idea — for the sake of children and young people who need every additional committed teacher, and for our country, which would benefit from leaders shaped by experience working in urban and rural communities.

This was, at the very least, the answer to my growing recognition that I really did need a thesis topic. The more I researched, the more obsessed I became, and at the end of it all I produced a 177-page thesis making the case for creating a national teacher corps, with a foreword about how I’d become determined to make it happen. And so, I can now thank the thesis requirement that had at one point seemed so unimportant to me for providing the answer to my search for a meaningful post-graduation pursuit. Thank you, Princeton.

I found my way to seed funding, a team of other recent grads, and, ultimately,  thousands of others who were also inspired by this idea. From the start, my days were not all fun and joy. In fact they have often been excruciating and stressful, comprised of a humbling learning curve and challenges that would put me far outside my comfort zone. But never has there been a day in this work when I have doubted that what my colleagues and I were doing was worth it. 

I feel so grateful for the revelation that had sent me into that malaise, about the importance of aligning our career paths with the issues we care about. For your generation that is more aware of and passionate about tackling injustice than any before, my hope is that you will recognize that your time is your biggest asset, and that driven by your values and the purpose of shaping a better future, you’ll be intentional and conscious about where to put your energy.

In this era there’s more attention than ever, especially among your generation, on personal well-being and finding “balance.” What I’ve seen is that the highest form of well-being is the exhilaration that comes from immersing ourselves in things that matter. The path to happiness is not balance per se, but rather congruence between the values we hold most dear and where we spend our energy. 

Lest you think I had it all figured out upon my graduation, however, I have to admit that I didn’t think I would be working on this for long. Blessed with the naivete of a 21-year-old, I figured we’d build the equivalent of the Peace Corps in two to three years. And then, as it became clear that I had completely underestimated what it would take, I figured somebody else would be better suited to enable it to thrive anyway.

A few years in, I got a big job offer. I was so excited and envisioned myself taking it. But, tortured over the decision, I brought together some of our founding team members to deliberate it. I still remember the conversation, at Cafe Lalo in New York City. Over the course of the afternoon, my friends and colleagues talked me into staying the course at Teach For America. They pointed to the signs that we really were onto something — that this work of ours was making a real impact with students, and that it was also changing something in our teachers and leading them to go on to challenge the unjust systems in which they worked in really important ways. And yet, we all agreed, we were very, very far from living into our potential. Doing so would take a lot more time.

I think back to that conversation with such gratitude. It led me to settle in at Teach For America, to stop contemplating ways out and onto the next thing.  

Settling in enabled me to go on a deeper learning journey. I began thinking beyond the day to day challenges that were more than enough to keep me busy, and considering what we were learning in classrooms and communities. I began spending more time visiting teachers who were having a particularly transformational impact, and realized that we could see patterns across them that would enable us to better train and support other teachers. With time, I learned from Teach For America’s alumni who were leading whole schools that were having a transformational impact and pioneering innovations to address the massive gaps in the system. Over the years, as I grew in my sense that, with enough leadership, we really could solve these systemic inequities, I would begin exploring what it would take to shift the outcomes for kids across whole communities and how to develop the leadership for that kind of transformation. 

One of my own sons once told me that if he’d met me 10 years into this endeavor, he might have been a little disappointed — I mean, given the start I got, putting my thesis into action and all, he would have assumed that I would have made more of myself by then. But it was really the decision to focus and go deep that was the difference between creating a nice boutique organization and building something that would have a shot at making a meaningful impact.

There’s an instinct among ambitious and driven people like ourselves to manage our career paths through a constant search for more and better. I’m so grateful for the push from my colleagues that led me to recognize that sometimes, more and better comes not from moving up and on, but from going deep. I hope you, too, will have the fulfillment that comes from the pursuit of deep impact rather than the pursuit of impressive resumes.

Don’t wait to consider these questions. Over these decades, I’ve seen that our society’s injustices are solvable, but they are also massive and complex and it takes a lot of time to make a meaningful difference in the face of them — so the path of no regrets is to start early.  

Whatever disappointment it might have been to my son, 15 years into this work, I still had my head down, focused on making Teach For America bigger and better. One day, I found an accomplished social entrepreneur, Shaheen Mistri, waiting for me in my office. She told me that she ran after-school programs in India, had met some Teach For America alumni volunteering in them, and was determined that her country needed a Teach For India. Shaheen asked me to visit her, and on that trip, I saw that the circumstances of marginalized children in India were more similar to those of the marginalized students in my own country than of India’s privileged young people. The solutions to these inequities would be much more shareable across borders than I’d ever considered. 

I had never before thought about the relevance of Teach For America’s approach for the rest of the world, but within one year, we heard from people in 13 different countries who were thinking about it. Today, Teach For All’s network of partner organizations is inspiring thousands of promising leaders across more than 60 countries — from Afghanistan to Ukraine — to channel their energy towards ensuring that all the children in their countries can fulfill their potential. And by enabling everyone to learn from each other, our network is enabling all of us to make more progress. 

If that Princeton thesis requirement hadn’t inspired me to set off on this effort as early as I did, it’s unlikely I would have had the chance to pursue this global work. I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn from so many brilliant people across such diverse cultural contexts, who have led me to rethink so much, from the purpose of education to how we can develop the leadership we need. For decades, the common path has been to pursue professional success and only then figure out how to engage with social causes. But if you’re tackling big, important challenges, that paradigm will keep you from having all the impact you have the potential to have, and from the fulfillment that comes from playing the long game.

Class of 2022, these are uncertain times that need your energy and leadership more than ever. As Princeton students, with the privilege of a world-class education and the networks and credibility that come with it, you have a particular responsibility to rise to this challenge. Don’t think that advocacy efforts in the wake of the latest injustice will sufficiently ameliorate your moral responsibility to lead lives in the nation’s service and in the service of humanity, because it’s doing the heavy lifting of actually reshaping our systems that will create a just world. 

You have worked so hard to earn these degrees. Now it’s time to celebrate — and then to put them to work. 

I’m excited for you, on this eve of your graduation. Your choices will tell us a lot about the trajectory of our country and world, and for all of our sakes, I wish you the very best of luck.

Commencement 2022