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So while he had been leaning toward joining the staff of Campus Crusade after graduation, Dickson began to seek a different way to live out his faith. He was looking for a way to serve, and he kept coming back to education. "When people are provided with a good education, that helps them have the greatest chance to reach their potential as a human being," says Dickson. "As an Evangelical, it was really important for me to help others work toward that."
That's how Dickson ended up a Teach for America corps member, spending his first two years out of college responsible for a classroom of 30 kindergartners at Octavio Paz Charter School in Chicago. With few high-quality preschools in the area, the children arrived in Dickson's class lacking basic skills like letter recognition and the ability to write their names. They left in the spring reading at grade level and writing sentences.
Dickson loved the satisfaction of knowing he was helping his young, bright students. But he also recognized that his good work could be undercut by a subpar elementary school teacher. After his two-year stint in the classroom, Dickson decided to become a Teach for America recruiter to get more talented graduates into the field of teaching.
Around the same time, Teach for America which was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp and currently places 4,100 teachers in schools around the country was starting to realize the role faith played in many of its teachers' lives. Internal surveys showed that more than half of incoming corps members said they were motivated by their faith to join Teach for America. The organization decided to launch partnerships with groups like the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities; Kopp keynoted the council's 2010 conference. Teach for America also moved to beef up its presence at religiously affiliated schools.
Dickson was the perfect match for those efforts. He became the leader of a team of recruiters who spread out among people at Bible colleges in California, the Latter-day Saints at Brigham Young University, young Catholics at Holy Cross and attendees of other traditionally religious institutions. Evangelicals are Dickson's specialty, in part because they relate so well to his tale. When he speaks about why he joined Teach for America, Dickson talks about his "calling." At Wheaton, one senior who is applying to the program asks if teaching affected his faith. "Absolutely," says Dickson. "Teaching at a low-income school is tough for anyone. My faith was what made me know on my drive home every day that I was going back the next day."
The Faith-Based Generation
It isn't just Dickson's enthusiasm and persuasive pitch that have led to the noteworthy increase in Teach for America recruits from Christian colleges and universities. Over the past decade, a remarkable cultural shift has taken place among young Evangelicals that has surprised even longtime observers.
There is a long history in the Evangelical community of caring for "the least of these," whether as full-time missionaries or through religious entities like World Vision, one of the biggest international relief and development organizations on the planet. Churches often collect special offerings to support aid groups or to focus on local needs through soup kitchens and clothing drives. Evangelical involvement in the pro-life movement is well-known, of course, but at least a century earlier, Evangelicals held leading roles in the effort to abolish slavery.