Mihir Shah ’20: Idealistic and achievable goals are not mutually exclusive concepts
By Mihir Shah ’20
When I first learned about ReadWorks, I couldn’t believe my luck.
My initial goals for my final college internship were, in my mind, too idealistic. I desperately wanted to gain a holistic view on nonprofit management and was looking for a cause that had a significant and direct impact on people. So when Terry Bowman ’85, Executive Director of ReadWorks, posted a small blurb on the Morehead-Cain Network about a summer opportunity, I lunged at the chance to work with him.
Engaging more than a million teachers and more 16 million students across the country, ReadWorks is an ed-tech nonprofit that arms teachers and caregivers with the tools they need to ensure that every child becomes a confident and joyful reader. Through ReadWorks’ website, they supply free, compelling reading content to educate students on thousands of topics, provide comprehensive tools and guidance for teachers, and conduct a continuous loop of research to inform the larger education community.
The first time I heard Terry describe ReadWorks to someone other than myself was at a fundraiser kickoff event. It was my third day as an intern. I had spent the last two days sifting through educator testimonials—enthusiastic teachers around the country thanking ReadWorks for their resources. Colleagues and friends of the board of directors gathered on this particular evening to learn about the nonprofit and their brand-new three-year fundraising campaign. After pleasantries had concluded, Terry began his introduction of ReadWorks with a simple statement:
“If you know how to read, you often take it for granted.”
My initial reaction was to dismiss it as a good sales pitch. But it’s hard to deny the truth in that statement. From the moment we wake up in the morning to when we go to sleep at night, reading plays an integral role in our day. Until then, I hadn’t actively meditated on how different my life would be if I wasn’t able to comprehend the world around me. The statistics that followed were simply devastating. Sixty-five percent of all fourth graders in America cannot read at grade level. The numbers are even bleaker for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, low-income and at-risk children, and kids that don’t speak English at home. These same children are four-times more likely to drop out of high school down the line.
At this point, the energy in the room had shifted; Terry’s influence on the room was clear. People were genuinely shocked by the facts and wanted to learn more about the organization, as well as the steps it was taking to better the situation. I finally understood just how important ReadWorks was to the educators who had taken the time to write and send in testimonials.
That weekend, I bought myself three new books to read over the summer for knowledge and for pleasure. Needless to say, I was excited to work there.
Terry delivered on his promise to immerse me in the operations at ReadWorks, and I was immediately integrated into the team’s workflow. I conducted data analysis, provided customer support, implemented a social media strategy, and created a marketing video among other things. Getting to know and work with the incredibly passionate and intelligent RW team was a privilege, and it was fascinating to witness exactly how this small group of individuals was successfully interrupting the cycle of illiteracy in America.
I also attended development meetings with Terry, where he discussed how to frame ReadWorks as a nonprofit that provides both free resources as well as cognitive-based research to the larger education community. Taking the organization in a direction that allows for systemic impact and industry-wide thought leadership is fundamental to the ambitious future he has in mind for ReadWorks. It was through these conversations about the “big picture” that I came to understand Terry’s passion for education.
As born and bred Tar Heels, Terry and I often talked about what growing up in North Carolina meant to us. Terry’s fervent love of reading was augmented as an English major at UNC, and he allowed his appreciation for learning while growing up shape his career into what it is today. It was motivating to work with someone who never shied away from translating their passion into their life’s work.
If there’s one lesson I’ve taken away from working at ReadWorks, it’s that idealistic goals and achievable goals are not mutually exclusive concepts. When my internship ended, I left New York with informative experiences, fruitful connections, and best of all, an invaluable friendship with Terry Bowman.
I still can’t believe my luck.
Mihir Shah is a Morehead-Cain Scholar from Cary, North Carolina. He will graduate in May 2020 with a major in Communications and dual minors in Writing for the Screen and Stage and Business Administration.