When Mikaela Betts earned a scholarship in fifth grade to an exclusive California private school, her eyes were opened to educational disparities based on income—and on race.
Betts, whose mother is African American, was among only a few students of color; she found herself navigating a world of wealth and privilege very different from her public school upbringing. “I was one of the lucky few who got that opportunity, and I’m grateful,” said Betts, a fourth-year majoring in sociology and public policy. “But the experience made me very cognizant of the inequalities between school systems.”
Betts never forgot her public school peers, many of whom were also racial and ethnic minorities from low-income families. It bothered her that they would not enjoy the same resources and opportunities. “That’s when I decided I wanted to do something about public education,” Betts said. “And I’ve stuck with it ever since.”
Betts has won the Woodrow Wilson Rockefeller Brothers Fund Fellowship for Aspiring Teachers of Color—one of only eight fellows selected this year from a national pool of 48 applicants. The fellowship will provide a stipend to pursue a master’s degree in education as well as mentoring and professional training in a high-need public school.
Betts will attend the two-year University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program this fall, and after graduation she hopes to teach middle school English language arts in Chicago. “Middle school can be a ‘make you or break you’ kind of time,” Betts said. “It’s so important to show students how much they are valued; it’s an ideal time to get involved in their lives.”
She already has a taste of what that work would be like. Betts is a teacher’s assistant at Fiske Elementary School, a placement she received through UChicago’s Neighborhood Schools Program. For the past three years, she’s coached girls softball at the University of Chicago Woodlawn Charter School.
Eventually, Betts would like to move into an administrative role that would involve closer interaction with education policy. “She has great potential to teach, to instruct teachers, and to manage schools and even school systems,” said Ross M. Stolzenberg, professor of sociology, who served as Betts’ thesis advisor. “She shows outstanding motivation to use her social and intellectual skills to build organizations that help and protect others who have suffered from disadvantage.”
For now, Betts’ sights are set on effecting change in the classroom. “I’ve realized more and more the impact that a good education has on life outcomes,” she said. “I think the biggest crime is that there are such great disparities in education—I keep asking, ‘How do we make it better? How do we spread the wealth?’”