Entrance Torch

Deeply Committed: Eric Smith '17 Transforms Community Through Education

Just months after graduation, Eric finds himself back in the classroom, but this time at the front, teaching seventh grade English at Tinley Prep, an all-boys school in Indianapolis. Valpo’s culture of service inspired Eric to take a step back and work in the community as part of the Teach for America program. It is his passion for educational equity that drives him as he pours himself into his mentorship role, working tirelessly to be the difference needed in these kids’ lives.

“Eric has exceptional initiative and work ethic, and this is evident in the work he completed during his time at Valparaiso University,” says Carrie Whittier, Ph.D., assistant dean of students for Greek life, leadership, and volunteer programs. “He focused on his academics while also balancing a wide variety of co-curricular opportunities. He has a strong commitment to family and friends, and works hard to ensure that he is giving his best to all of his endeavors.”

According to Eric, his Valpo journey was characterized by “possibility.” He recalls the close-knit community, lively class discussions, service to the community, extensive extracurricular involvement, leadership experiences, and lifelong friendships. These strong experiences and the life lessons he learned while on campus spurred him to embark on this two-year journey with Teach for America.

“Student life at Valpo has a huge service component,” Eric says. “Serving the community was a big part of my family growing up. And, at Valpo, I was not only surrounded by opportunity, I was also encouraged to engage in the community.”

At Valpo, Eric’s philanthropic history grew and strengthened. He was extensively involved in service to his fraternity chapter, co-founded Greeks United Around Respect and Discussion of Sexual Assault (GUARDS), and took part in three University-sponsored Spring Breaks trips, to name a few. While Eric’s Valpo journey may have come to an end, this motivation to serve and to be a purposeful member of society clearly has not.

Eric was drawn to serve as an educator when he learned in a Valpo political science course that some states determine the number of prison beds needed based on third-grade test scores. Upon reflection on his own life, Eric concluded his life could all be attributed to education. Struck by his personal blessings, he was led to the mission of Teach for America and says he is in his own “small way” trying to disrupt the lives of the students he serves by bringing more equity to the educational realm.

But Eric isn’t known for doing anything in a “small way.” In fact, his personal mantra is, “Always strive to be the best at whatever you’re doing. It’s a waste of time otherwise … just put in the work.”

During his time at Valpo, Eric immersed himself in the campus community and challenged himself academically, graduating with a degree in international relations and international economics and cultural affairs in addition to earning the Scholar designation for his achievements in Christ College, Valpo’s honors college. His extensive involvement on campus included the Commission for an Inclusive Valparaiso Community, the Christ College Student Advisory Board, Symphony, Dance Marathon Executive Board, and Sigma Phi Epsilon, through which he served as president of the Interfraternity Council and co-founded GUARDS.

“As his academic advisor, I observed Eric’s industriousness, thoroughness, and conscientiousness with regard to his academic work,” says Amy Atchison, Ph.D., associate professor of political science and international relations. “Eric embodies Valpo’s values of leadership and service, and kindness and compassion are evident in everything he does. It was a joy to watch him grow in confidence with each new student organization he joined and each new leadership position he accepted.”

The care and concern the faculty and staff showed Eric blew him away as they invested in both his personal and professional development. A feeling that is definitely mutual.

“Eric is one of the finest young men for whom I have had the opportunity to work with in my 19 years as a fraternity and sorority advisor,” Assistant Dean Whittier says. “Eric is passionate, intelligent, inquisitive, articulate, and thoughtful. His commitment to excellence is unparalleled, and he expects the best from himself and all those around him at all times.”

In acknowledgement of his strong campus presence, there was no shortage of honors bestowed upon Eric his senior year — Fraternity Man of the Year, VUAA Distinguished Student Award, Outstanding Student Leadership and Service Award — as well as the Undergraduate Award of Distinction granted by the North-American Interfraternity Conference.

Although Eric is confident the memories and friendships formed at Valpo will never go away, he says his focus is on one thing these days — his students. Completely immersed in Teach for America, Eric is committed to being the best teacher he can for his students. He is focused on helping his students have the opportunity to go to college and be what they want when they grow up — to have the same opportunity he had and often took for granted.

Committed to doing whatever is necessary to get things done and have an impact on his students, Eric is willing to be the first one in and the last one to leave each day. Those who know him best would expect nothing less.

“Every day brings us challenges. Every day brings us victories,” Eric says. “But we are moving. And that positive motion means we’re learning something … gaining new skills each and every day.”

While Eric is just beginning his work with Teach for America, he is already loving it, engaging his students, developing their writing and idea generation skills, and watching his students’ faces light up with understanding. He considers himself lucky to be able to give back to the community and make an immediate impact with kids who need teachers.