Nicola Muchnikoff first traveled to the Mississippi Delta two years ago during SMU’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, when she visited civil rights landmarks across the South. The Dedman College graduate will return to the Mississippi Delta this summer to teach elementary school as a Teach for America recruit.

“After studying the history of school integration and visiting the region, I feel I can better understand the social and economic issues the kids there are facing,” says Muchnikoff, a political science major from Richardson, Texas, who has minors in history, archaeology and human rights. “I’m so happy to have the opportunity to dedicate two years to these kids and their education.”

bacca2010-11.jpg Muchnikoff is one of 17 new SMU graduates who will spend the next two years with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that recruits and trains outstanding college graduates to teach in low-income rural and urban public schools, with a goal of ending educational inequality. They join more than 8,200 teachers, also known as corps members, who are teaching in 39 regions across the country next year. This year more than 46,000 students applied for 4,500 Teach for America positions.

Muchnikoff says she hopes to incorporate lessons about human rights, peacemakers and social justice in her teaching in Mississippi. At SMU, the University Scholar and “M” Award winner helped lead the Model United Nations program and “SMU’s Heart Beats for Haiti” earthquake relief campaign. “I’ve learned there’s a bigger world out there,” she says, “and that every person can make a difference.”

In photo: Some of SMU’s 17 new graduates who will begin training with Teach for America in June.

Opening doors

SMU’s Teach for America recruits begin their training in June and will teach in one of 39 urban and rural regions, ranging from New York to Los Angeles to south Louisiana. George Enriquez, a markets and culture major from San Antonio with a minor in Spanish, is headed to South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to teach bilingual education.

Enriquez says he is excited to teach in a district where Spanish is the first language for the vast majority of students. “These students are going through the same thing I did as a student – learning English at school, while speaking Spanish at home,” he says.

At SMU, Enriquez received a Mustang Leader Scholarship and served as comptroller of the Students’ Association. He says he had the opportunity to attend a top elementary school while growing up and has experienced firsthand the value of education. “I am the first member of my extended family to graduate from college,” he says. “Education is a tool that opens doors, and I hope to continue mine.”

Everybody’s responsibility

Rhiannon Hamam, of Bedford, Texas, will be teaching closer to home. The President’s Scholar with a double major in political science and French, and a minor in human rights, is assigned to a middle school in Oak Cliff. Teach for America expanded its program to the Dallas area last year.

At SMU, Hamam served as president of SMU Democrats and Political Science Symposium, and also volunteered as an Arabic and French translator at Dallas’ Center for Survivors of Torture. She hopes to give her students a sense of the power of language. “We all have the gift of expression,” she says. “I want them to know that what they say matters and that they are heard.”

Hamam, who is the first member of her family to graduate from college, says she feels a personal connection to Teach for America’s mission. “I had amazing public school teachers and made it to SMU,” she says. “But nine out of 10 students who grow up in poverty won’t go to college. That’s something everybody has the responsibility to change.”