After graduation, a return to the classroom

CSB and SJU graduates undertake unique service, education opportunity

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July 22, 2014

By Tiffany Clements

Gretchen Sitzer

Gretchen Sitzer '14 in the classroom.

Gretchen Sitzer is no stranger to the classroom. A 2014 graduate of the College of Saint Benedict, she has spent hours taking notes and participating in class discussions. 

But, come Wednesday, August 20th, she'll be taking on a new academic challenge. She's a bit nervous. 

"I am most worried about the first day of school," she said. "The first day dictates the whole year: the tone you set, the procedures you put in place, the expectations in your classroom."

Sitzer is a first-year teaching fellow with the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. Earlier this summer, she started her own coursework toward the Master of Education degree she will earn while teaching English language arts to students in grades six through eight at St. Mary of Carmel Catholic School in Dallas.

Teaching fellows earn a fully-funded graduate degree from Notre Dame while serving as AmeriCorps members, teaching in classrooms at under-resourced Catholic elementary and secondary schools for two years. The program houses fellows in intentional faith communities with one another during the regular school year as they serve in challenging environments. It is just one example of the opportunities Bennies and Johnnies pursue after graduating from College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University. 

So far, Sitzer's experience has been a whirlwind.

"This summer has been the hardest I have ever worked in my life," she said, "but the support from the ACE staff and ACE students makes the work exciting and manageable."

Sitzer is the first CSB alumna to participate in ACE but her alma mater's counterpart isn't unknown to the program. Eleven graduates of SJU have served as ACE teaching fellows in the last eight years.

Matt Reichert, a 2005 SJU graduate, is one of those 11 Johnnies. He served as an ACE teaching fellow in Memphis, Tennessee, teaching social studies to seventh and eighth graders and religion to 11th graders at Memphis Catholic High School.

Reichert, a native of Richmond, Minnesota, recalls some culture shock when he thinks back on his experience teaching in inner-city Memphis.

"I'm the only white person in the classroom, from Minnesota, trying to relate to and teach and understand where these seventh and eighth graders are coming from," he said. "Many of these students come from single-parent families, a couple of whom are homeless, some of whom just have really awful home lives. Now I'm supposed to provide some sort of structure for them." 

The experience opened Reichert's eyes to the important role educators can play in students' lives.

"For a lot of these students the stabilizing presence that teachers have within a community was significant. That was a huge lesson I was not expecting," he said. "It was really powerful."

Reichert remains close to the CSB/SJU community as the principal at Saint John's Preparatory School in Collegeville, Minnesota. He said he sees interest in ACE and similar programs as opportunity for Saint Ben's and Saint John's to connect their alumnae/i with service opportunities after graduation. 

"This is one opportunity for service. This is one opportunity for an experience like this," he said. "There should be an opportunity for everybody to do a thing like this that's going to fit with the amount of time or the type of thing they're doing so that nobody can walk away from here saying, 'I would have loved to have done something like that but there wasn't something for me,' because there is."