Two Graduate Students Blaze Education Trails Abroad and at Home

May 11, 2012
Lindsay Clarke and Krzysztof Kosmicki

They say those who can’t, teach, but two students in one of Columbia’s graduate programs suggest the opposite—those who can, teach.

Lindsay Clarke and Krzysztof Kosmicki helped launch elementary schools in Cameroon and Newark, N.J., respectively, soon after wrapping up their undergraduate education.

Now both are at the top of their class of students graduating with an M.A./M.Sc. in international and world history in Columbia’s dual degree program with the London School of Economics.

Neither student initially envisioned themselves working in the classroom, but both were drawn to the idea of bringing quality education to impoverished communities.

Clarke’s interest in Cameroon began as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. After writing her senior essay on post-colonial politics in that African nation, she was “frustrated at having conversations about Third World development from a classroom in Connecticut.”

She graduated with a degree in sociology and French studies, then received a grant from Wesleyan to teach English. She returned to Cameroon full time in 2006, and it was then that the seeds of her nonprofit organization, Breaking Ground, began to grow.

An elementary school in her Cameroonian village was desperately in need of new cement floors, and though the parents and teachers backed the project, they lacked the funds. Clarke wrote to family and friends in Maine explaining the project and in six months, she raised $12,000.

“It went viral before viral was even a word,” she laughed. The money was used to overhaul the school, put down cement floors and build a community library in collaboration with the local high school. It became the first project of Breaking Ground, which supports community-based projects in Cameroon.

When Clarke decided to come back to the United States, she taught history and French at the Wayneflete School in Portland, Maine before beginning the search for the right graduate school. Columbia’s dual degree program was the only one she considered applying to—primarily because it focused on an interdisciplinary approach to global culture and history.

“This program has given me the intellectual and academic ammunition for the grassroots-level community approach that not only felt right but was historically accurate,” she said.

Kosmicki, who just completed his dissertation on American journalists and Latin American revolutionaries, felt the same way about the master’s program.

A graduate of the University of Puget Sound, Kosmicki said, “I had a naive vision of becoming a real-life, urban version of Robin Williams’ character in 'Dead Poet’s Society,'” a reference to an unorthodox English teacher at an exclusive New England prep school who inspires his students to love poetry and pursue their dreams.

Though none of Kosmicki’s fourth graders in the South Bronx, where he taught as part of Teach for America, ever uttered “Oh Captain, my Captain”—the Walt Whitman line that Williams invokes to fire up his students—Kosmicki aspired to the same lofty teaching goals.

Shortly before beginning the Columbia program, he, along with four other Teach for America alumni, founded Rise Academy—a middle school in Newark that is part of the KIPP network of charter schools.

That experience taught him that the challenges of teaching inner-city youngsters are more than compensated for by good old-fashioned fun when things are going well. “Once you learn how to talk to 10-year-olds and make them laugh,” he said, “teaching is a joy.”

After his own graduation later this month, Kosmicki plans to write a memoir about his experiences as a teacher. Clarke, currently serving as Breaking Ground’s chair, is looking forward to continuing her “long-term relationship” with the Cameroonian community.

—by Cindy del Rosario-Tapan