Written by: Eric Prister
ACE teachers come from all walks of life and many different corners of the world, bringing their unique experiences to their new communities and students and exposing them to the world of possibilities out there.
Mikey Berino, ACE 19, is a prime example of such a well-rounded ACEr. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Mikey spent six months working for a political campaign in California after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, then spent the next six months working for a program dedicated to death row inmates. In keeping with his passion for social justice, Mikey then signed up for the Peace Corps, dedicating the next two years of his life to educating girls in Burkina Faso, West Africa, in a village with neither electricity nor running water.
Mikey attributes his dedication to service to his Catholic education. “Whenever you go to Catholic university, there’s a huge emphasis on social justice and service for others. During my time at LMU, [the idea of the Peace Corps] really kept echoing and echoing, and I knew I wanted to do something international and service-oriented when I graduated, and I also wanted to use French, and the Peace Corps fit all those parameters. My friends and I always joked about me going to Africa after graduation, but in the back of my mind I just knew that was going to be true,” he said.
Once in the Peace Corps, Mikey worked with a program called Girls’ Education, and Empowerment, dedicated to reversing the trend of girls dropping out of schools at a much higher rate than boys.
Mikey explained that the government of Burkina Faso asked the government of the U.S. to send volunteers to help with decreasing numbers of girls in schools, following up on students in kindergarten all the way through high school. The numbers of boys to girls is normally pretty even in kindergarten (a village class typically consists of about 40-45 students,) but as you move up further and further in their education career, you notice that girls end up dropping out significantly, especially during their middle and high school years, many times because of traditional gender roles or because families cannot afford to have their girls go to school. By the time that they get to their senior year, most of the boys in a single class graduate alongside only two or three girls.
While working at these schools, Mikey and his students became involved with the Peace Corps’ Coverdell World Wise Schools Correspondence Match pen pal program, where they match an interested volunteer with a school in the U.S. Mikey contacted his high school French teacher, and the two became partners in this exchange.
“Burkina Faso is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, so there’s a postal system, but it’s not super efficient, and it’s in the middle of West Africa, so it takes a long time to get thing, so a pen pal program like that was a lot harder than I anticipated, especially since I didn’t live in a village with electricity or running water. It took a lot of effort, but it was definitely worth it,” said Mikey.
During his time in Burkina Faso, Mikey worked in schools as well as in the community working in after school programs for girls as well as parents to discuss the importance of education and ways to stay in school. Even though working with girls was his main objective, Mikey did a lot of work in the community as kind of a community resource.
“I think the dedication to community is part of the reason I was so attracted to the ACE program. In many ways it’s structured similarly to the Peace Corps, but with aspecific focus on Catholic schools,” said Mikey.
Mikey first heard about the ACE Teaching Fellows program when he came home to visit family and friends halfway through his time in Burkina Faso.
“My 8th grade teacher [at St. Joachim School in Hayward, Calif.,] Ms. Dana Bayer, and I had always sort of stayed in touch,” said Mikey, “and she found out I was going back home in the middle of my service just to visit and reconnect with friends and family. She contacted me and asked if I would come by and talk to her students about the Peace Corps and Burkina Faso and West Africa, and all of these things. After giving this presentation, I realized that I really loved to be in the classroom.
“Ms. Beyer was actually a graduate of the Remick Leadership Program at Notre Dame--I had no idea. So we were talking, and I told her I really felt called to teach, and she said I should consider applying to ACE.”
When his time in Burkina Faso was over, Mikey went back to St. Joachim School as a teaching assistant to see if teaching was really for him. After that year, Mikey knew he was called to be an ACE teacher.
After arriving in Biloxi as part of ACE 19, Mikey knew he wanted his students at St. Patrick Catholic High School to gain an understanding of the greater world. He incorporated his experiences in Burkina Faso and the Peace Corps into one of the units in his French II class, and presented the idea to his students of participating in the pen pal program he had been involved with before.
“I wanted to test the waters first and see if students were actually interested and it wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, that it was something they wanted to do as well.
“They had never been exposed to something like this. You hear about these kinds of programs, though, so they were really excited. But they were a little skeptical, too. So we set this up, but it took like a month and a half to receive a response. In many ways, when they sent the letters, they forgot.
“Finally they got their letters in the mail, and they were super excited. Their reaction was definitely one of the top 10 teaching moments of my ACE career. The best part was their wanting to write back in French without any hesitation. The most outgoing person to the shyest person in the class--they all wanted to write back in French. They wanted to do that on their own as opposed to me telling them they were going to--they asked to.”
The transformation in his students was incredible, said Mikey. Most students at St. Patrick take the minimum requirement of two years of a foreign language, though the programs are offered for three.
“This year, many of my students stayed and continued to French III, which says a lot about them. And I think the pen pal program helped in that it motivated them to use the language in new ways. Even though I sparked the fire in terms of contacting another volunteer, they are really the ones who keep fueling it. It’s awesome to see that in action. I honestly can’t speak any more highly of my students; I’m just so proud of them,” said Mikey.