Beyond Vassar

Learning Through Teaching

By Andrew Faught

As South Africa continues to remake an educational system stifled by decades of government-enforced racial segregation, Tanay Tatum ’12 is reminded of challenges closer to home.  

Tatum, who grew up in Plant City, Florida, says American education has its own challenges in ensuring equity in the classroom. A study by the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University finds that the percentage of Latinos (65.9 percent) and African Americans (63.5 percent) graduating on time from high school trails the rates of Asian American (91.8 percent) and Caucasian (82 percent) students.

“I have seen how education enhances a person’s ability to escape poverty and think critically about their social position, as defined by race or class, circumscribes limitations and opportunities,” says Tatum, who this year was awarded a prestigious Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to teach in Stellenbosch, South Africa, east of Cape Town.

Starting in January, she will spend 10 months providing English instruction at Kayamandi High School, which serves grades 8 through 12. English is one of 11 official languages in the country, but at Kayamandi, almost the entire student body speaks Xhosa.

Tatum, a sociology and Africana studies major at Vassar, also will consider lessons learned from apartheid—or legislated segregation—the accepted government policy of South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Apartheid meant black schools got less funding and were subject to larger class sizes than white counterparts. The quality of teaching also lagged.

Her Fulbright continues Vassar’s longstanding student success in the program, which aims to promote closer educational relations between the United States and other countries. Fulbrights are awarded by the non-profit Institute of International Education.

From 2001 to 2011, 33 Vassar students received English Teaching Assistantships. The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly cites Vassar as a “top producer” of Fulbrights among liberal arts colleges.

Tatum, former president of the Vassar Student Association, says traveling to South Africa will give her new perspectives as she works toward a teaching credential and a job in an inner-city American classroom. She ultimately plans to forge a career in education policy.

She will try to arrive in South Africa with an open mind. “The most important thing to do first is stop, observe, and listen. That’s the best way to get a feel for the environment you’re in,” she says.

“Tanay is driven by this combination of wanting to be excellent, wanting to exceed expectations, and really wanting to make the world better,” says Kiese Laymon, associate professor of English and co-director of Africana studies at Vassar. “She’s the rare student who is driven by a global responsibility and is also so absolutely committed to making local places more welcoming and open to justice.”

The Fulbright isn’t Tatum’s only distinction. This year, she also received Vassar’s Ann Cornelisen Fellowship, awarded to graduating seniors and recent alumnae/i to study a language in another country. She traveled to Quito, Ecuador, in August and will continue her Spanish studies at Pontificia Universidad Católica until December. She will resume her Cornelisen Fellowship when she returns from South Africa.

Tatum, who enrolled at Vassar on the advice of an aunt and her high school counselor, says her liberal arts experience influences her daily. “It’s taught me how to observe behaviors and the way people interact with each other, which is something I’ve always used as a student leader, and I hope to use it as I become an educator as well.”