UA alumnus Steve Erickson was destined for a business career but took a risk and followed his interest, landing in the education field.
UA alumnus Steve Erickson was destined for a business career but took a risk and followed his interest, landing in the education field.

Dream Jobs: UA Grad's Career Path Took a U-Turn for the Better

Alumnus Steve Erickson heard a speaker from Teach for America, took a chance on the organization and has never looked back.
April 5, 2017
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As thousands of UA students prepare for Commencement, to be held at Arizona Stadium on May 12, we highlight UA alumni who landed their dream jobs. This is the first in a three-part series featuring Wildcats who say their time at the UA helped prepare them for amazing careers.

The UA's 153rd Commencement ceremony will be held May 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium.

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As vice president of public affairs and community engagement at Teach for America in Phoenix, Erickson helps to build partnerships and prepare recent graduates for work in underresourced K-12 schools.
As vice president of public affairs and community engagement at Teach for America in Phoenix, Erickson helps to build partnerships and prepare recent graduates for work in underresourced K-12 schools.
Erickson said his work at Teach for America "has been an absolute dream. I'm happy and constantly fired up that I get to make a real difference. I deeply believe in our mission and the potential of every child."
Erickson said his work at Teach for America "has been an absolute dream. I'm happy and constantly fired up that I get to make a real difference. I deeply believe in our mission and the potential of every child."

As Steve Erickson sat among a group of other University of Arizona students during an information session with a Teach for America representative, who spoke about work within the organization, something was changing within him.

At that point, Erickson, a student in the UA Eller College of Management, and his friends — fellow 2005 grads Josh Eich, Michael Dougherty, Evan Witte and Joe Young — had launched BTO Auction Technologies, a drafting platform for fantasy sports, focusing specifically on college rivalries. The group built software used for draft picks, eventually winning the McGuire Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition.

However, learning about the work of Teach for America, a nationwide organization that places recent college and university graduates and professionals in underresourced urban and rural K-12 schools, would change Erickson's career path completely.

"I was immediately enamored. (The speaker's) excitement inspired me," said Erickson, who graduated with degrees in economics and entrepreneurship.

About 48 hours after that session with Teach for America, Erickson decided to dedicate time learning about nationwide equity gaps. Teach for America is driven by a vision that all children deserve a quality education, regardless of their background or access to resources. That resonated with Erickson.

"After that, there was no turning back," he said. "I had to reflect on my center, what I believed in and what my values were. When I did, those fundamental values led me to join Teach for America, where I thought I could make the biggest impact. I made the difficult decision to walk away from our startup, but knew I was making the right decision."

After saying goodbye to his business venture, the 22-year-old Erickson began working with "31 eager and energetic fourth-graders" at Quentin Elementary School on the west side of Phoenix.

"They were the most impressive kids, but were far behind academically," he said. "At 9 years old, they should have been reading chapter books. But some were reading picture books and, on average, were reading just below a second-grade reading level. The same was true for math."

Not only did he have to teach students to learn, but he had to learn how to teach.

“Learning how to teach was a little daunting," he said. "Teach for America's framework of teaching through leadership is what I fell back on during this time. The UA taught me the same thing: to set ambitious goals, to be realistic about our current state, to be very intentional about our plan for improvement, and to stop at nothing to reach our goals."

After those initial two years teaching with Teach for America, Erickson decided to stay with the organization. He has been on staff for nearly a decade and currently serves as vice president of public affairs and community engagement, based in Phoenix.

In his position, Erickson manages multiple partnerships across Arizona, including those with schools and districts, community organizations and governmental entities. His team also manages the onboarding of teachers at a local level by welcoming the new class of teachers who have committed to two years of teaching, helping them transition to the teaching profession in Arizona and connecting them to the schools in which they are placed. 

Erickson also works with state legislators and the office of Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, lobbying for public support and funding to expand Teach for America's efforts in low-income communities across the state.

Also, since Erickson joined Teach for America, the organization in Phoenix has seen rapid growth, largely because of improved marketing and recruitment, he said. "Five years ago, there were less than 500 alumni teachers and now we have over 900," he said.

Teach for America reports that its nationwide network includes 6,900 members who are teaching in dozens of regions. All told, more than 46,000 people have worked in schools through the organization.

Reflecting on his time at the UA, Erickson said the University and the Eller College helped shape his eventual success.

"I absolutely attribute UA mentors and classes to my success," Erickson said, noting that his role model and mentor, UA alumnus Karl Eller, a businessman and entrepreneur, was especially encouraging. Eller graduated in 1952 from what was then the UA business school. He has since devoted his time and philanthropic efforts to support the college, renamed after him in 1998.

Erickson has interacted with Eller during times when Eller would visit classes at the college.

"'Opportunities are for the optimist,'" Erickson recalled Eller saying. Erickson developed the philosophy that he should "run towards opportunity and take risks — that is key."

And that is what he did.

"TFA has been an absolute dream," he said. "I'm happy and constantly fired up that I get to make a real difference. I deeply believe in our mission and the potential of every child."