Cory Graham, ’10, helps Indianapolis youth set roots in education.
When Cory Graham, ’10, taught students in Kenya, he also learned some lessons of his own: an orange, considered a healthy snack by many in the U.S., was sometimes a daylong meal for people who could afford little else.
The experience gave him perspective that sometimes the little things are the big things.
After graduating from Indiana State, he has embarked on an ambitious career. He has been the first teacher of a new program in Warren Township Schools and served as an administrator in Indianapolis during Arlington High School’s first year as a turnaround school. He then joined the staff of newly established Tindley Collegiate Academy – all by the time he turned 27.
Graham also shares his lessons from those experiences with Indianapolis youth, doing what he can to “sweat the small stuff” to create a culture of college expectation so that middle and high school students know: it’s not if they attend college. It’s when.
“I’m just glad to be here,” Graham said. “I’m grateful to Indiana State for helping me grow, and for helping me with understanding just how important education is, because I developed a passion for education while at Indiana State. I have been privileged to have many wonderful mentors, too many to name, throughout the duration of my continuous evolution.”
During his final semester at Indiana State, he was the first student to take advantage of a program to do student-teaching in Kenya. He taught in the eastern African nation for 10 weeks, living in a rural part of the country on a sugar cane farm without running water or electricity. He ate fish and chicken once a week, if at all; the vegetables he ate were completely organic, which he credits for helping improve his body.
“We have so many amenities, we have so many creature comforts as my pastor calls them, and we don’t even acknowledge them,” he said of life in the United States. “We take for granted the ability to flip on a light switch. We take for granted the ability to store food in a refrigerator to have it for days. We take advantage of the ability just to eat.”
He also enjoyed the opportunity to witness some of Kenya’s cultural traditions. People who invite others to their home, for instance, frequently prepare meals for their guests; people also gave handmade gifts as a way to show appreciation.
“In America we just consistently want. We want more,” he said. “In Kenya, you may just be … grateful for having nothing but breath in your lungs.”
Graham was a good choice to be the inaugural Indiana State student to travel to Kenya, said Judy Sheese, director of student services in the Bayh College of Education. The program required a student who was seeking a deeper, more enriching experience, she added.
“He was very active in his pursuit of going abroad,” Sheese said, “and it was really important to him to experience a culture other than his own.”
He made many friends in Sheese’s office, which coordinated his program. He “would light up our office whenever he came in,” she said.
“He is a very dynamic individual,” Sheese added, “and he’s been a great ambassador for Indiana State, as well as for our teacher education program.”
By March 2010, three months after he graduated from Indiana State, Graham received his first teaching contract – in Warren Township, where he’s from. He was the first teacher of the Intensive Mental Health Program, working with a mental health therapist and instructional assistant to teach 18 students who had a variety of mental health diagnoses.
“I was entrusted to make sure I was in compliance with all law regulations, so I quickly had to do my reading,” he said of the experience. “I also had to become more equipped as a teacher to do administrative duties, secretarial duties, communicate with stakeholders and teach, which was most important.”
The program quickly taught him more about working with students from different backgrounds, as his students had a variety of – and sometimes multiple – needs. The traditional educational setting was not working for those particular students, Graham said.
“They had more needs, requiring more intensive care,” Graham said. “Being a first-year teacher, I had to learn so quickly.”
While teaching in Warren Township, he decided to return to college. Joined by his best friend and fellow Indiana State graduate Dale Sharpe III, Graham graduated from the University of Indianapolis with his master’s in educational leadership. Shortly after graduating, Graham received a new opportunity – to be dean of scholars at Arlington High School, which at the time was going through a turnaround.
While at Arlington, Graham helped put into practice the EdPower approach of “culture before curriculum.” The high school was in its first year of being run by EdPower, the Indianapolis nonprofit that administers the Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School in northeastern Indianapolis. Prior to the turnaround, the school had been known for having a myriad of challenges, including safety concerns, Graham said.
“[Turnaround is] still a new phenomenon,” Graham said. “We had a strong administrative team that I was fortunate to be a part of that I could grow from. We had multiple administrators that had years of experience, and I learned through the trenches.”
The new Arlington High School administration quickly tackled the school’s culture, establishing firm expectations about how students should act during the school day. The administration implemented one of EdPower’s staple slogans: sweat the small stuff.
“If you sweat the small stuff,” Graham said, “you don’t have the big things, like the fights, the gang activity.”
He admits that he was fairly young to take on an administrative role. Sheese was not surprised that he had accomplished this goal so early in his career.
“He’s a natural leader,” Sheese said. “I would expect him to be involved with an administration.”
After spending the 2012-2013 academic year at Arlington, he received the opportunity to the founding assistant principal of culture at Tindley Collegiate Academy, an all-female accelerated middle school that places students on track to attend a four-year university after high school. Students in the school, which opened this fall while construction is ongoing in certain parts of the structure, are joined in cohorts that take on the names of prestigious universities to help establish the culture of college expectation at a young age. Students are joined in cohorts such as Spelman College, Wellesley College and Harvard University.
“I didn’t know attending Harvard was possible. I just knew it was a prestigious university,” Graham said of his youth. “However, the focus here is that Harvard is a possibility. In fact it is a goal to get our students there.”
Graham, who credits his wife with helping him get to where he is today, recently helped organize a daylong visit for Tindley Collegiate Academy students to tour Indiana State. More than 80 seventh graders from Indianapolis toured the university and learned more about different programs that Indiana State provides for college students on the campus that is less than two hours from their doorstep.
Sheese spoke with the Tindley students during their visit. She also reunited with Graham; though they had exchanged emails a few times, he had not returned to campus in several years.
“He worked to get to where he is at, and I expect him to go further,” Sheese said. “He is one of those people who can really do whatever he wants, and he will be successful.”
For Graham, the visit was part of the ongoing effort to teach young students about the opportunities that are possible – just as they have been for him.
“I believe if I stay grounded and humble, doors will continue to open, as long as I’m here for the right reason,” Graham said, “and that’s to care about kids and show them the power of education.”
(Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations at Indiana State.)