I Never Expected to Become a Thunderbird Student

Gabrielle Swindle

Gabrielle Swindle

Guest Writer

In April of 2018, I sat down to write at the shaky wooden table in my meager kitchen, the pungent scent of my neighbor’s curry coming through the open window. I was enjoying the breeze provided by the incoming rainstorm and the monotonous tap-tap-tap from the rain on the tin roof. With only 15 days left as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guyana, I was attempting to process my experiences and what they would mean for my return to America. As I usually did during these moments of stillness, I drifted into thought. 

 I thought about teaching at McKinley High School, a historically underserved school in the still culturally segregated South Louisiana. My thoughts went to a student named Jayrell, who was arrested for nothing more than being on the road late at night on the way to a friend’s house. He missed his Participatory Action Research presentation in our Humanities Amped class at school the next morning while he sat in jail. Jayrell’s empty desk marked one of many experiences that taught me education is more than class. As an educator, I didn’t just need to know how to teach English or history, I needed to open myself up to the community and the systemic oppression that seeps into every facet of life, I needed to know how to stand alongside my students. 

I thought about the people of Guyana, whose culture and worldview, so drastically different from my own, altered my existence. Over two years, I learned the meaning of grit while unlearning my skewed ideas of justice, equality, and fairness. I thought about Sharla Hernandez, head of Guyana’s Region 9 Department of Education, and my closest friend while overseas. I recalled the feeling of fury when she gently put her hand on my shoulder to silence me when a male counterpart told me to “shut up” during a Girls Leading Our World planning meeting. “As women, we must do everything quietly; this is how it’s always been done,” she warned me as I watched her prepare dinner later that afternoon. Initially, I rejected this idea of quiet retribution with righteous indignation. Then, as I watched her make dinner for the nine children that she cared for in her home, I reflected on what it takes to be a Guyanese woman. I realized she wasn’t telling me I couldn’t, she was telling me how I could; it was a lesson in self-preservation. She always set a place for me at the table.

 Of course, none of these experiences have brought me to any kind of conclusion. Instead, they sparked a new, more profound question: now that I know, what am I going to do about it? 

Here I am, over three years later. All of these undertakings have led me to this niche of a career path at the intersection of education, community, equity, and social justice. Yet, all of the seemingly altruistic programs I’ve been a part of prior to Thunderbird have been problematic. I’ve borne witness to the gaps in programs with good intentions but terrible execution, or programming with financial liability or data prioritized over quality or success. I’ve seen teachers in American and Guyanese settings drowning in the responsibility of educating and raising other people’s children despite “data-driven programming” aimed to fix the education system. Nonetheless, witnessing the endless sweat, love, and tenacity the educators/implementers of these programs pour into change serves as a catalyst for my own journey. I then find myself returning to the same question I wrote down at my wooden table two years prior, but this time asking: what are we going to do about it, and how do we do it right?

  My goal in attending Thunderbird’s School of Global Management is to develop skills needed to successfully build and maintain culturally responsive, socially-just educational programs. However,  I never ever imagined myself in business school. I never thought I could learn accounting, or data collection. It shocks me every day, and it’s the exact opposite of where I saw my life at 28.  At Thunderbird, I am learning how business strategy, funding, and policy play into non-profit/ humanitarian programs with maximum community involvement and impact.  I have the opportunity to learn  from those who have asked similar questions and are looking at the global picture when it comes to building sustainable programs that advocate for social change. After Thunderbird, I dream of someday working with the UN, USAID, or other global initiatives that are also striving to build a stronger global community. My mission is to consistently work to dismantle systemic inequity in education through community involvement, culturally relevant programming, and relational organizing, supported by  the knowledge and networks I’ve gained during my time at Thunderbird. 

Guyana Landscape
Guyana Landscape
Bird in Guyana
Gabrielle's classroom in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Gabrielle with Sharla
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