Teach for America recruits Javier Mendez, DJ Sellarole, Marlene Castro and Jesús Galindo

Teach for America recruits Javier Mendez, DJ Sellarole, Marlene Castro and Jesús Galindo.

College graduation often means leaving the classroom behind. But dozens of UC Berkeley students getting diplomas this month are heading immediately back to school, this time to the front of the class.

Currently the top contributor to the Teach for America program, a national teacher corps whose recruits are committed to giving youngsters in poverty an excellent education, UC Berkeley expects to send about 90 new recruits to the team.

In addition, UC Berkeley students in the corps over-represent the entire Teach for America force when it comes to the percent of recruits who are people of color, Pell Grant recipients and males. In 2012, 35 percent of the national corps members were Pell Grant recipients, but of the UC Berkeley recruits, 59 percent received these federal, need-based college grants.

After attending a five-week training institute in the coming months, the 2013 recruits will hone their skills at summer schools, then head to 46 urban and rural regions of the country. Currently, some 10,400 Teach for America corps members instruct more than 750,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

“It’s no surprise that UC Berkeley ranks first. The university is socially conscious, the students care about education and injustice, and they align their actions and beliefs,” said Raquel Lucente, UC Berkeley’s Teach for America representative. “Each of these young teachers, regardless of where they’re from, will be opening the blinds and letting kids see what education can afford their future.”

Saving the underdog

Marlene Castro loved learning, but growing up in her tough East Palo Alto and Redwood City neighborhoods, she was bullied for being smart — even to the point of being jumped on and beaten. She said she’s only one of five students from her middle school who made it to college.

Her Mexican-born mother’s insistence on a college degree — Castro, 22, is the first in her extended family to get one – and on her children grabbing every opportunity for higher education, prompted Castro to seek out college prep classes, scholarships and information about top schools.

She not only got into UC Berkeley, but did so with an Incentive Award, a campus scholarship for low-income, first generation students with leadership potential, good grades and a commitment to serve. The political science and rhetoric major will put all that to good use next fall. In Oakland, she’ll teach in a middle school – where she once encountered gangs, weapons, drugs and ridicule — as a Teach for America corps member.

“I carry scars from those years, but they’ve empowered me to become a teacher as a way to help support young teens,” said Castro. “No one is worth falling through the cracks.”

Former athlete takes on Arkansas

At College of the Canyons in Southern California, DJ Sellarole found himself playing defensive tackle for the football team, but also helping teammates tackle their studies as a tutor in the athletic study center. They were talented on the field, he said, but not often in class, because they had attended underperforming high schools.

Familiar himself with hardship — his father lost a job, and around 2006, the family’s home went into foreclosure, and they were homeless for a time — Sellarole, 23, who is a UC Berkeley transfer student, said he knows how stress can “crowd out the potential within.”

After he graduates this month, the English major and former Daily Cal reporter and his girlfriend, Jessica Rossoni, a political science major also getting her UC Berkeley diploma, will head to Helena, Ark., as part of Teach for America. In the mostly black community, which Sellarole says has high crime and poverty rates, he plans to use sports as a vehicle to meet students and their families, and to set up a journalism or creative writing club.

“I’m extremely excited. All the experiences in my life are pointing me to this,” he said. “If I can empower my students to work hard at believing in their ability to affect their own futures, then I’ll consider myself successful.”

Drill sergeant with a heart

If having a former drill sergeant as a teacher sounds intimidating, you haven’t met Javier Mendez. The U.S. Army veteran, who is about to head to Houston for training as a Teach for America recruit, says barking isn’t his style.

“Some drill sergeants are constantly yelling, but I only talked in a normal voice, I didn’t want to put my recruits in a situation where they were afraid to ask questions,” the development studies major said.

The San Antonio (Texas) Independent School District, where he will teach in the fall, recently was rated “academically unacceptable.” Mendez, 28, doesn’t flinch at the job ahead, but simply says, “They’re in need of teachers there. I hope to make an impact.”

Mendez attended an underperforming high school in Oxnard, but did well enough to enter UC Berkeley in 2002. He joined the U.S. Army after his freshman year, then went on active duty in the middle of his junior year, serving at Ft. Knox, Camp Parks Reserve Forces Training Area, and Ft. Hunter Liggett. He returned to UC Berkeley in 2012 “more mature at 28 than I was when I arrived at 18.”

He also had married Chen Yang, a UC Berkeley optometry student, who is in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and also graduating this month. The Cal Veterans student program became like family for them.

Teaching middle schoolers in a high-need classroom instead of adults in the military will be a switch. “But I’m looking forward to it,” said Mendez. “The end result is the same, whether in the military or the civilian world. I’ll be instructing and making an impact on lives. And in an area that needs it most.”

A way of giving back

Receiving a UC Berkeley diploma this month, with his brother by his side and a career in education ahead, the brightness of undergraduate Jesus Galindo’s life is remarkable, compared to the dark times he knew as a youngster.

After his parents divorced when Galindo was 9, he and his younger brother Alex traveled with their mom, who had become deeply depressed, through 13 California cities, and finally to Tijuana, Mexico, where she disappeared, leaving the boys on their own. The family had always been in poverty.

Galindo and his brother scrambled to find food and money for school, and became an inseparable support system. When Galindo’s father chose only to bring his oldest son back to Central California, the brothers didn’t fare well apart. Galindo’s grades and behavior fell, and his little brother in Mexico was without proper care.

Reunited when Galindo was 13 and Alex 9, at their dad’s home in Central California, Galindo improved his schoolwork to be a good role model for Alex. Alex encouraged his brother to aim high, and when Galindo got into UC Berkeley, Alex told him, “Our dreams are coming true.”

Now 22 and 18, the pair shares a small apartment in Oakland, where Alex, who developed symptoms of mental illness as a teen, moved after high school. Together again, they have given each other strength. Galindo leaves UC Berkeley with great grades and a public service award, and Alex is thriving.

He said joining Teach for America — Galindo will be in a Richmond classroom in the fall — is a way of giving back to high school and college educators who encouraged him during tough times. “When our teachers help us,” said Galindo, “we all succeed together.”