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Perspective | I am where I am because of others’ unconditional belief in my potential 

The following is part of my monthly column, One Day and One Goal: Expanding opportunity in N.C. I invite you to follow along as I share stories from classrooms and explore critical issues facing education in our state. Go here for past columns.


When I first took my position as executive director of Teach For America in North Carolina, my first goal was to get to know the stakeholders who make up this work, starting with the alumni of our program who have lived out their commitment to educational equity over three decades in this state. In many ways, these monthly columns have been an opportunity to showcase what I’ve discovered: the brilliance and dedication of the Teach For America network in North Carolina, the innovation they are putting into reimagining public education, and their collaboration with students who are leading the way. 

Now, I want to take a step back. After all, it’s a season of reflection for us educators — we are evaluating budgets and performance, and student learning evaluations are right around the corner. For me, I’ve been preparing to meet with community members across the state through a series of “One Day Breakfasts,” events during which we’ll be meeting with local leaders and coalitions, sharing about what we do and how we can continue partnering to make our mission a reality: One day, all students will receive an excellent and equitable education.

The main question we hope to answer is this: how will we invest in the leaders making educational equity possible? It’s a bold question, and one that’s encouraged me to reflect on my own journey into education. Who invested in me? How, and why? 

In answer, I want to share about the three types of people who made an indelible impact on my journey: my educators, my developers, and my community leaders. 

Going back to the start 

I loved my twelfth grade English teacher, Mrs. Kendra Hege-Gallos. Not only did she lead a rigorous classroom in one of my favorite subjects, she was also the yearbook advisor, of which I was a section editor. Under her leadership, I got to do what I loved: putting together words and pictures into a story that, in some ways, only I could tell. 

She played a major part in what would turn out to be quite a memorable year — not only because of my participation in the yearbook, but also because it was the time I learned I was pregnant and made plans to prepare for the arrival of my son. 

To the naked eye, I was a perfect stereotype. But things are never that simple. 

I wasn’t just a young, pregnant Black girl. I was the daughter of two college-educated, middle class parents, college sweethearts who now have been married over 50 years. Based on the living provided by my sales executive father, my mother chose to stay home with me in my youngest years, giving me close attention and instruction, fostering my love of reading and learning. Her choice, and her privilege, set me up for a lifetime of success. 

So, my senior year presented a fork in the road; or, more accurately, an event that could have derailed my journey. It was the foundation built by my parents and my faith, as well as the encouragement of Mrs. Hege-Gallos, that helped decide which path I would follow. 

Because never, for a moment, was my potential brought into question. My teacher never doubted my aptitude or belittled my ambition. And I received a glowing recommendation from her when it was time to apply for college. 

How doors are opened

When I was only a freshman at North Carolina Central University, I received another key recommendation, this time to the selective nationwide internship program INROADS. As a result, my professional development was accelerated to the point that I was confidently leading a team of people in my early twenties. How many full-time students — not to mention single, Black mothers — could say the same?

I could’ve kept the position INROADS introduced me to after graduating, but I wanted a change of scenery. In Charlotte, I fell into higher education — and fell in love with it. 

It felt like coming home, like coming full circle, to work with continuing education and other adult learners who were hard workers, industrious learners, trying to find the balance between their present responsibilities and future hopes. I knew how much my educators and advisors meant to me when I was in those shoes. 

That was the first time I felt what many of our Teach For America corps members find so fulfilling: seeing growth in students that remind you of yourself. 

The next few years of my professional life fed my love of learning and desire to continue giving back to those students. Though he is now retired, the then-president of York Technical College, where I taught and later served in administration, believed strongly in leadership development and committed a significant portion of his presidential budget to fund it.

Chief Human Resources Officer Edwina Roseboro-Barnes stewarded that body of work: an open-access employee development fund by which I and my colleagues were able to access first-class programming. This included tuition reimbursement for my postgraduate work in strategic communications and leadership then higher education administration. It also allowed me to be one of the first South Carolina residents to be selected for the national Aspen Institute Rising Presidents program. I have nothing but gratitude for Mrs. Roseboro-Barnes, and other development administrators under that college president, who actively supported my leadership and growth. 

All of these chapters of my journey would have been impossible without nominations, recommendations, support programs, words of advice, and mentorship. All of these doors would have remained closed to me without someone on the other side, making a way through for me, encouraging me to keep moving forward. 

It takes a village

Now, I’m fortunate enough to be a part of the rich, diverse network of leaders who are flourishing in this state. I’m even more fortunate to call some of them my dear friends. 

Like Charlitta Hatch, who has taught me the joy as well responsibility of “wearing multiple hats.” Former president of the Junior League of Charlotte, businesswoman, author, wife, and mother, Charlitta styles each hat she wears with grace, modeling how to grow roots around people and place and lifting people with you as you reach for the stars. 

Like her, I’m an active member of both the Junior League of Charlotte and Association of Junior Leagues International, and I also serve on the board for Florence Crittenton Services of North Carolina and North Carolina Central University’s College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. My role with Teach For America also encourages me to stay connected to the many threads that make up our statewide community, in and beyond education. 

I do this because I wish to follow the lead of all those fighting for the future of women here — all women, including those who became mothers at a young age, like myself. I believe in them, just like I believe that all of our students are endlessly capable, smart, and full of potential. 

My journey has given me a keen sense of just how critical an environment of learning and encouragement can be in the trajectory of a person’s life. How early education — whether provided at home or at school — can build a pivotal foundation of literacy and critical thinking. How mentors are necessary from an early age, and how many times they can pave the way for educational and professional opportunity. How resources and development will transform you from thinking of yourself as a powerless individual to a connected, global citizen. 

That is what I want for every student in North Carolina. Which is why we must also want that for every teacher who guides their learning, every school and systems leader who creates their learning environment, every parent who is passionately advocating on behalf of their child, and so on. My hope and desire for this reality moves me to act with purpose and urgency, because at the center of all of it is our kids, and they can’t wait. 

All it took was a few key people to unconditionally believe in my potential to get me here. Imagine how our students could thrive if they knew every person in their state was rooting for them to achieve their “one day.” 

Monique Perry-Graves

Monique Perry-Graves is an award-winning leader, educator, speaker, and author. As of June 2021, she is the first statewide executive director for Teach for America (TFA), North Carolina. In this role, Perry-Graves is serving as the chief executive for the state in support of TFA’s mission to find, develop, and support a diverse network of leaders working together to end educational inequity and leading over 50 TFA staff across the state. She is a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University where she earned her undergraduate degree in English. Perry-Graves continued her educational pursuits by earning a master’s degree in strategic communications and leadership from Seton Hall University. She then earned a doctorate in higher education administration from the University of Florida.