Graduating student plans to make difference by teaching in high-needs urban schools

Graduating senior Jessica Tate is an avid reader and origami artist. Photo by Benjamin Krain.

When Jessica Tate, a 22-year-old native of Nashville, Arkansas, spent this summer teaching English as a second language in China, what she experienced led her to make a life-changing decision. 

“What I saw in China blew my mind,” Tate said. “I went to five different schools over the course of my internship, so I got to see the disparities in educational access. It gave me a totally new perspective.”

Tate will graduate from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on Saturday, Dec. 15, earning two Bachelor of Arts degrees in international studies and Spanish. For many years, Tate assumed she would join the United Nations as an interpreter following her graduation, or perhaps a think tank to do research on international policies. But the internship she completed in China, a part of her requirement for her international studies degree, changed those plans.

“The internship legitimately changed my life,” she said. “There was one school where we had to teach in this building that seemed so disconnected from the rest of campus. I remember being in this building that was meant to be a gym. I didn’t have access to a computer, projector, or desks. I only had a small board, and I had to squat down in order to write anything to teach. It was really that experience that opened my eyes to that I should be doing something that is fulfilling to me.”

Tate applied and has been accepted to a four-year teacher residency position with the Urban Teachers Program, a nonprofit organization operating in Dallas, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The mission of Urban Teachers is to prepare highly effective teachers who are committed to teaching students in school districts that need them most.

In June, Tate will move to Baltimore, where she will teach secondary mathematics in high-need schools, all while earning her state teacher license and earning a Master of Science degree in education from Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

After graduating high school at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts in 2014, Tate started at UA Little Rock as a recipient of the Donaghey Scholars Program. The campuswide honors program includes full tuition and fees, a living stipend, financial assistance toward a study abroad program, a housing subsidy, and a new laptop computer.

“I was very fortunate to have the Donaghey Scholars Program,” she said. “I get to graduate debt free, and I am very thankful for that. Meeting new people was the most enjoyable part.”

Dr. Simon Hawkins, director of the Donaghey Scholars Program, described Tate as an inspiring student who always rises to the challenge.

“Jessica is one of those inspiring students who takes advantage of everything UA Little Rock has to offer, both in the classroom and the world,” Hawkins said. “She is the model of a well-rounded student who always seeks challenges, whether it be teaching English in Mongolia or learning photography and piano or tackling world quality research with UA Little Rock faculty. She is driven by a desire to understand the world. Many of her experiences have been hard and have pushed her personally and intellectually, but she has always risen to the challenge.”

She credits Dr. Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm and Dr. Joseph Giammo, professors in the School of Public Affairs, as two of the UA Little Rock professors who helped her the most.

“I have been very lucky to have some professors like Dr. Eric Wiebelhaus-Brahm and Dr. Joe Giammo. Dr. Brahm has helped me a lot to try to figure out my life. He’s been a great mentor to have, and I have learned a lot from him. He is one of the most knowledgeable people I know. He cares about his students and wants to see the best for them. Dr. Giammo was very helpful and understanding. I enjoyed his classes, and he was a good mentor.”

Working with Wiebelhaus-Brahm also gave Tate amazing research experience. She completed three research projects with him. The most memorable project was to evaluate the effectiveness of a hybrid peace operation in South Sudan, a project that she presented in the university’s Student Research and Creative Works Expo and the College of Social Sciences and Communication Research Symposium.

During the six months between graduation and her move to Baltimore, Tate plans to get a job and earn some money, but she also has some major life events to look forward to. As part of her graduation present, Tate and her mother will travel to the Philippines to visit her mother’s family.

“My mom and I are going to the Philippines for a whole month as part of my graduation present to visit the homeland and visit my family,” Tate said. “My mom and I have been planning this for a long time. It’s part of the reason I studied so hard. I wanted to do this for my mom. I’ve never been there before, and I’m going to meet my family for the first time over there.”

On May 17, 2019, Tate will marry her fiancé, Zachary Cochran, a senior economics major at the university who will graduate next May. They met at UA Little Rock when Cochran was taking a Spanish class and needed a tutor, who turned out to be Tate.

“I was reading a book, ‘The End of Poverty,’ she said. “He looked at the book, and said ‘I know that book.’ We talked about how much we like the Penguin publishing company. We hit it off first thing. It happens when you have two bookish people. We even have these book dates where we go to Barnes and Noble to sit down and read.”

In the upper right photo, graduating senior Jessica Tate is an avid reader and origami artist. Photo by Benjamin Krain. 

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