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Alum finds passion joining Teach For America after military

October 24, 2013

Sun Devil alumnus Raheim Smith grew up in tough circumstances. His family lived in a rough neighborhood in New York and often experienced homelessness. At 17 years of age, Smith made the decision to join the United States Army as a means to support his family and open up future doors to education.

He was trained as a cannon crewmember at the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, N.Y. According to Smith, the division is one of the most deployed units in the military. The three years he spent on active duty gave him the focus and purpose that he lacked as a teenager.

“I always had a strong work ethic, but the Army ramped it up," he says. "I realized that there was something bigger than myself, and I had the ability to serve others.”

Upon leaving active duty, Smith continued to serve in the National Guard. He then began his pursuit of education and landed in finance. He secured lucrative positions at firms on Wall Street, but found himself becoming jaded by the money-hungry attitudes that come with the territory.

“I was born to serve. Arizona State University became my next destination, so I could go back to school and pursue my passion to help others,” he said.

Smith says that the launch of ASU as the New American University inspired his decision to become a Sun Devil. The endless opportunities for research and innovation made the university the ideal place to meet like-minded students who want to change the world. As a political science major, he juggled being a full-time student and having a full-time job that supported his family.

In his classes, Smith would also help those struggling with their coursework. He was already an active volunteer in his community, but had never considered teaching before then. When the opportunity to join Teach for America came along, he felt compelled to apply.

Smith was placed at District 79 in New York, a public school that specifically focuses on educating teens who have run into trouble with the law. As a high school math teacher, he focuses on using real-world problems to get students interested in the subject.

“I love it. I love getting kids to care about something simple like exponents. They may ask when they will ever use the material, and I relate it to mortgages and credit scores,” he says.

The most rewarding part of his job is seeing change right before his eyes.

“I had a girl in my class who believed she was terrible at math. She got a 21 on the first exam and was seriously deflated. I told her that I used to be bad at math too, but if she dedicated 20 minutes a day to practicing that she could succeed.” Sure enough, by the second exam she improved.

“It was like a light bulb went off. She saw that she could improve if she just put in the time each day.”

Smith is currently helping his students prepare for the statewide Regents Exam. Drawing on his military training, he says that he takes each day as a mission to complete. Being a part of Teach for America has helped him accomplish his lifelong commitment to learning.

“I want to see these students go to ASU and become the next generation of Sun Devils changing the world.”