Class of 2021: The Teacher Becomes the Student, Again and Again

May 7, 2021 By Caroline Newman, Caroline Newman,

Daniel Dickey’s journey to the University of Virginia started in a Miami classroom, where he wasn’t the student, but the teacher.

Dickey, who will earn his MBA from UVA’s Darden School of Business later this month, began working with Teach for America shortly after graduating from Florida Atlantic University. Teach for America enlists outstanding college graduates to teach in some of America’s most under-resourced classrooms for at least two years, with the hope that each teacher in the program will go on to strengthen education in some way, whether as a teacher or as an advocate in government, policy, business or other fields.

It certainly worked for Dickey, who saw himself in some of the high school English students who stared back at him from their seats in the classroom. Like many of them could be, Dickey was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

“When I became the first person in my family to graduate from college, I felt it was deeply important to help other kids realize how valuable and transformative higher education can be,” he said. “I was so grateful to have the opportunity to work with these kids and I showed up every day enthusiastic about helping them reach their goals.”  

That passion influenced Dickey’s next career moves. He realized that many of the high school students he taught knew little about the college admissions process, something that had also been a mystery to him.

“My kids were asking for letters of recommendation, and I started reading all of these guidebooks and tips about the college admissions process, because I wanted to make sure I gave them the best possible shot,” he said. “I became enamored with how life-changing that process is, and I thought I could have an impact there.”

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Ultimately, Dickey was accepted to Harvard University to pursue a master’s degree in higher education. While there, he focused on college access and how to support underserved student populations. After graduation, he accepted a position as the senior assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College.

“That was a dream role,” he said. “I was able to travel the world helping educate deserving students on the application process. Honestly, few things bring me more joy than seeing a kid get into college.”

He was even able to witness one of his brightest high school students in Miami get admitted to Dartmouth, a poignant moment that Dickey called “one of the greatest moments of my career.”

After a promotion and three years at Dartmouth, Dickey began thinking about other ways to make an impact in education, including leadership in business and policy. That is what drew his attention to Darden.

“I believed that an MBA would give me a foundational understanding of business as well as prepare me to lead others in an equitable way,” he said.

He also, he jokes, followed UVA president and fellow first-generation student Jim Ryan, who was dean of the Harvard School of Education when Dickey was there.

“His signature is on my master’s degree from Harvard, and now it will be on my degree from UVA,” Dickey said.

We can do this. Keep going, UVA.

Dickey brought to Darden many things from his years in the classroom and in higher education. Perhaps the biggest, though, was his love of reading. Though he was an English major in college, and taught English in Miami, he readily admits that he did not love to read as a child, or even as a teenager.

“I wasn’t the kid who just naturally picked up a book,” he said. “But once I did, reading truly transformed my life. Through books, I was able to synthesize and better understand the world and appreciate the beauty of the human experience.”

Back in that Miami classroom, Dickey had wanted to encourage all his students, from the eager readers to the more reluctant ones, to read outside of the classroom. So he followed in the footsteps of veteran teachers by implementing a reading challenge. However, he added an impactful twist.

“I remember sitting in my classroom late one afternoon trying to figure out how I could get more students to read,” he said. “I happened to look at my smart watch and thought about how I tracked steps in real time. More so, I could see how many steps my friends logged and it motivated me. Could reading work that way? … Kids are always tracking shares and likes. Could I get them to track words?”

Dickey’s version of the Million Word Challenge was born when he started tracking how many words his students read via a classroom bulletin board. Now – thanks to some seed funding Dickey won in the UVA Entrepreneurship Cup, plus the spare time that the pandemic brought – that bulletin board is an app. Though the app is still being tested, users can download it and begin tracking their words with the goal of reaching 1,000,000 every year.

“Winning the [Entrepreneurship Cup] pitch competition was pivotal in helping me bring this idea to fruition,” said Dickey, who took several entrepreneurship courses at Darden and spent a lot of his free time interviewing teachers, librarians and students about what it takes to get kids interested in reading.

“Now, no matter where a student is, no matter where they go to school, they have a way to motivate themselves to read more,” he said.

Dickey’s enthusiasm was contagious, said one of his professors, Luca Cian.

“Daniel is an inspiring person and a natural leader,” said Cian, an assistant professor of business administration. “When he came to Darden, he became the section rep, thanks to his charisma. He pulled the section together and the section, also thanks to his work and leadership, became one of the most united, loyal, fun and pleasant groups of students I have ever taught and worked with.”

Dickey found a lot to love at UVA and Darden, from the beautiful scenery to the college-town camaraderie.

“Something I love about living in a college town is the ability to form close, meaningful relationships with professors and classmates,” he said. “I’ve treasured my time as a part of this esteemed University and wonderful community.”

In fact, Dickey and his wife, Natasha, loved it so much that Natasha decided to prioritize Darden when she applied for an MBA. She is now a first-year student at Darden, and the couple are hoping to start a family in Charlottesville.  

“It has really been a perfect fit,” Dickey noted, “But no matter where I go or what I do, helping others navigate education will be pivotal to who I am as a human.”

“I am still close with many of my students, and hope to continue to be a mentor in their lives. One just got accepted to medical school; I am excited to cheer for another virtually at his college graduation in a few weeks. I will always, always make time to talk to any kid about education.”

Cian has faith that his student will be an excellent teacher and leader, no matter what field he is in.

“I am excited about what Daniel will do in the future,” Cian said. “He is one of the people able to change the world and make it a better place.”