Over a quiet pizza dinner back in 2013, Monica Gray and Annie Medaglia hatched an idea that is changing the way teachers can incorporate real-world experience into their classrooms.
Both graduates of the University of Virginia’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Gray and Medaglia are the co-founders of DreamWakers, a non-profit organization that uses free videoconference technology to bring exceptional career speakers into public schools across America.
The women had jobs in Washington, D.C. at the time and were frustrated with the lack of volunteer opportunities – especially opportunities in schools – that were possible for working professionals.
“Public service was just a way of life at UVA,” Gray said. “When we got into the working world, we longed for that same meaningful connection to our community. That desire to connect with young people and give back as young professionals planted the seeds of DreamWakers.”
Medaglia and Gray both spent time volunteering with Madison House while completing their undergraduate and graduate degrees at UVA, and the hours they enjoyed the most were spent in learning environments with school-age children. They found few, if any, options for similar volunteer experience while working 9-to-5 days.
“We found that our situation wasn’t unique,” Medaglia said. “Some of our most interesting and dynamic friends wanted to volunteer with schools, but with the overlap of the school and work day, they couldn’t make it work.”
Looking down at their smartphones as they spoke, they realized that the solution was right in their hands. They could use free technology like Skype and Google Hangout to help volunteer speakers step into the classroom without ever having to leave their desks.
“When we started, our goal was to create a national movement and we are really doing that, using everyday tools and connections,” Medaglia said. To date, DreamWakers has connected volunteer speakers with students in more than 50 communities nationwide.
The founders recently received a $50,000 Toyota Driving Solutions grant to grow their efforts. In conjunction with the grant, they were also named Toyota’s 2016 “Mothers of Invention” at the Women in the World Washington, D.C. Salon.
Soon after their pizza-night revelation, Medaglia returned to UVA to earn her MBA from the Darden School of Business. While there, she discovered the University’s i.Lab incubator for entrepreneurs. She and Gray were accepted to the program in the summer of 2014 and quickly began using the i.Lab to cultivate their fledgling non-profit.
They created an online platform from scratch where teachers could request the kind of speakers they wanted for their classroom and volunteers could apply for “flashchats,” their term for 40-minute, videoconference discussions with students. From there, they had to find a way to start a grassroots movement and get the word out among teachers.
UVA English professor Victor Luftig helped connect them with Adrienne Hood at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Hood is the executive director of the Southwest Virginia Public Education Consortium and Foundation, an organization that provides resources and continuing education to teachers in 19 Southwest Virginia school districts.
“From the first time that I spoke to Annie and Monica, I just had a great sense that what they were doing was worldly and that it was going to reach so many students and touch their lives in so many ways,” Hood said.
Excited by the possibilities this could bring to Virginia’s rural southwest, Hood invited the women down to pitch their program to the consortium and to meet local educators.
“From our pre-launch to today, Adrienne has believed in our mission and has gone above and beyond to help us scale,” Gray said. “She personally drove us all over Southwest Virginia to meet teachers and superintendents, many of whom became DreamWakers’ first and most loyal users.”
Soon they had a full roster of interested teachers. They launched their first flashchats in the fall of 2014.
“Now the students here can realize that there are opportunities that reach beyond the mountains of Southwest Virginia,” Hood said. “We want students to realize that there are opportunities for them not just in the rest of Virginia, but around the country and the world.”
As they register for flashchats, teachers often will request speakers who have similar backgrounds to their class in terms of their hometown, race or socio-economic status so that students can see what they have the potential to become.
“DreamWakers vets every speaker that applies to join our Career Corps, and when a teacher signs up, we spend a lot of time reviewing their learning objectives,” Gray said. “Then we work to find the best speaker to help bring that teacher’s lessons to life. Each flashchat is meant to add real-world value to what the students are already learning, to help bridge the divide between our public schools to our rapidly changing workforce.”
Past speakers have included Carlos Pascual, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine; broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien; and David Simas, deputy senior adviser to President Obama.
Pascual’s flashchat was one of three that 12th-grade government teacher Jarrett Hatcher has hosted in his class at Robert E. Lee High School in Staunton, where Gray was once one of his students. Hatcher is thrilled to see one of his former students bringing new opportunities back to her alma mater and making a difference in education around the country.
“They’re inspiring kids on so many different levels,” he said. “There are so many applicable speakers in terms of what we’re doing in government class. We’ve had entrepreneurs and ambassadors and it all relates to what we’re teaching.”
DreamWakers got its start in Virginia classrooms, but it’s now reaching students in classrooms from Harlem to Houston and beyond.
Moving forward, Gray, who serves as CEO and runs DreamWakers full-time, and Medaglia are laying the groundwork for hosting sponsored flashchats starting this fall, where major companies and small businesses alike have the opportunity to connect employees with classrooms to share the highlights of their work and how they arrived at their position.
“We want to highlight the incredible depth and breadth of opportunities available within a company – from recruiting and HR to marketing and communications to IT and the CEO suite,” Gray said. “We’ve found that students are often unaware of the variety of jobs that are out there and available to them; this is just one way to begin to connect students the full spectrum of what’s possible and the skills that are needed to get there.”
Someday, they hope DreamWakers will even reach beyond the United States and become a global program.
Gray summed up their ultimate goals for education best when describing DreamWakers in a recent Toyota Mothers of Invention video. She explained that the name DreamWakers is based on the Aristotle quote, “Hope is a waking dream.”
“It succinctly encapsulates what we want to do, which is inspire students and awaken their future potential and dreams,” Gray said.