Dear Valedictorian: An Open Letter to Potential Educators

15 Jun 2023

Whitney Aragaki, a DoD STEM Ambassador, encourages STEM majors to consider pathways into teaching

When you dream about a profession that offers solutions to the world’s problems, envision first and foremost, a teacher. Teachers take their knowledge, rigorously analyze it, and articulate it to the most critical audience. Our profession is highly challenged because it holds power. Isn’t that what a STEM major imagines as a career?

Dear Valedictorian: An Open Letter to Potential Educators

The following was written by Whitney Aragaki, a high school science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Aragaki was selected by Arizona State University Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2021-2022 school year.

Dear Valedictorian, have you considered a career in teaching?

Once, longer ago than I would like to believe, I was in your seat — sitting in class, dreaming of a livelihood that offered solutions to the world’s problems. I listed scientist, doctor, engineer and diplomat on the short list of careers that I would pursue in my high school exit survey. My parents were teachers, and while I had a pleasant experience in K–12 education thus far, I never dreamt of becoming a teacher myself.

Being a self-identified nerd in high school was fun. I spent most of my days with other students who were eager to learn and found joy in rigorous assignments and day-long assessments. We were angling to best each other at science fair, history day, math league and mock trial. My classmates and I would compare notes on college presentations and career fairs, dreaming of the world beyond our small-town high school. Our teachers reminded us to dream beyond the field of education. Why would we pay so much money for college and struggle through the hardest classes just to become a teacher?

Truthfully, becoming a teacher had a connotation that I was failing at any other profession. I heard the old adage “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” I replayed in my mind the idea of majoring in a STEM field only to become a teacher as one of failure. As a young woman of color, the stakes were even higher. I felt that I had to prove myself and my belonging in most learning and career environments beyond my high school classes. If I didn’t make it, would I let down a greater community of people who supported me or who saw themselves in me?

Well, it happened. I got into a glamorous college, one with an acceptance rate that is even more bleak now. I struggled through introductory physics class, got lost in linear algebra and cried daily during organic chemistry office hours. I felt so small, so drained by the gatekeeping that STEM programs maintained. But I made it through, majoring in biology and earning acceptances to graduate degree programs across the nation. Reflecting back, the guidance I needed in high school and college was not only about lifting me up to see my potential but supporting me through the tough and tenuous times.

Eventually, I found myself in the teaching profession. I earned my teaching certification in the final year of college and was able to gain employment as a math teacher during the research years of my master’s program. I quickly started advising math club, mentoring science fair research, and reviewing college application essays — the same aspects of high school that brought me joy during my teenage years.

Now, I was able to guide from experience. It was no longer hypothetical; I had done the same competitions, felt the same waves of anxiety and answered very similar essay prompts. My pedagogy continued to change and develop with more experiences, but the need to serve our students of color and historically underrepresented youth with direct guidance about the expectations of educational gatekeeping and identity wars persists.

Valedictorian, as a person who has experienced achievement in a system intentionally designed for a bottleneck of success, you are primed for a position in education to change it from the inside. This is our charge. In all the many ways that you can make an impact on your community and the world, you have the ability to shape all other professions and innovation profoundly as an educator. Devise and demand equitable systems for all students to succeed, and even transform our societal definition of success.

Becoming a teacher is not taking the easy way out or missing your full potential. Instead, it is the more challenging path. One with more responsibility to transform our society. Teachers take their knowledge earned, rigorously analyze it, and articulate it to the most critical audience. Our profession is highly challenged because it holds power. Isn’t that what a STEM major imagines as a career?

So, take an education course. Mentor at the local community center. Become a substitute teacher. Students need to see a variety of representation in their classrooms from elementary to graduate school. When you dream about a profession that offers solutions to the world’s problems, envision, first and foremost, a teacher.

About DoD STEM and Defense STEM Education Consortium

Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) is a collaborative partnership of STEM-focused organizations dedicated to addressing and prioritizing our nation's STEM talent. DSEC aims to broaden STEM literacy and develop a diverse and agile workforce with the technical excellence to defend our nation. Through strategic investment in STEM education and outreach activities, the effort will provide students with more exposure to educational and career opportunities as well as DoD research. DSEC is led on behalf of DoD STEM by RTI International.

About Arizona State University Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College

Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College administers Arizona State University's undergraduate and graduate programs in education. For the consortium, ASU MLFTC delivers culturally responsive curriculum in cybersecurity and information technology to young women in underserved communities and prepares STEM educators through professional learning on STEM culturally relevant pedagogy.