Service in the Classroom: Impacting our Youth Through STEM

Computers in a classroom.

Joseph Clay, former Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, is a Teach For America corps member in Tulsa, Oklahoma and teaches math at East Central High School.

This week, we honor the contributions of engineers in education and teachers who bring engineering to life for kids, educators, and parents. Through this dialogue, it's important to recognize the impact that veterans in the military can also have in helping introduce kids to opportunities and careers in STEM (science, tech, engineering and math).

I was, and always will be, a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I served my country in war time, running combat operations as an Infantry Marine in Iraq. My time in the Marine Corps was one of the most influential times in my life. It molded me into a warrior and into a man of conviction. I wear that pride on my sleeve as I continue to serve as a math teacher in one of the highest needs areas in the country – Tulsa, Oklahoma.

After I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, I served two years in a Combat Engineer Battalion for the Kansas Army National Guard (KANG). While serving in the KANG, I learned how to build bridges, disarm booby traps, clear mine fields, and build Forward Operating Bases in deployment areas around the world. And today, I leverage these skills to recount the importance of STEM for my students, teach them real-world application, and expose them to career fields in engineering and math. STEM fields are at the core of our country's innovation, and all students—especially students from low-income backgrounds and students of color—should be fully included in the equation. Few things have the power to unleash a child's potential and open the doors of opportunity like an excellent education. As a teacher, I can help my students break free from the cycle of poverty and set their sights on any future they envision for themselves through the experiences and challenges that bind us together.

My story is unique to me, yet I see aspects of my experience and identity shared with so many of my students. I grew up living in poverty and now I serve a student population living in under-resourced communities where violence is an everyday norm. I lost my father to a motorcycle accident as a young child. Many of my students have only one parent at home. Like my students, I tried to endure the challenges of poverty, but dreamed of one day changing my reality. These shared experiences are why the work I do is so important to who I am, and why I went into a life of service that started in the Marine Corps and has led me to the classroom.

In the Marine Corps I served my nation with honor. I also served alongside some of the greatest men I have ever known. I believed in the spirit of America, and because of that belief I swore to a life of service to defend my country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. It was with that purpose in mind that I fought in the Iraq war.  Sixteen of my brothers never made it home. I carry their memory with me every day in the classroom as I fight today to end educational inequity.

June 16, 2006 was the day that changed who I was as a person and ensured that the sacrifice of others would live on in my heart. I lost two of my best friends that day to an explosion. My vehicle was one of three that struck Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, in an ambush outside of Ramadi, and what followed is forever engrained in my mind. Many in our convoy were killed and all were injured. It is that day that pushes me to bring the message of freedom and equality with me in everything that I do.

Those men believed in our nation, and that day my mission to deliver their message to others began. I sustained an injury, but I walked away. That injury is a reminder every day of my life that I was one of the lucky ones. It is with that mentality that I approach my service to this country, from the classroom and beyond. I get the chance to live the memory of my fallen brothers in the classroom and ensure our kids become the innovators and pioneers of the future.  I encourage my fellow veterans to join the fight to give our nation's youth the education they deserve. As I've seen among my fellow Marines, military veterans have unique skillsets, experiences, and leadership abilities that can add real value to the classroom. I served America, now I teach for America. And you can too. Semper Fidelis!


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