Teaching Assistant:
William Harkless

A key element of the Global Teaching Project’s blended learning model—which employs multiple means to engage students and facilitate learning—is the extensive tutoring provided by college STEM majors from leading universities around the country, such as Yale, the University of Virginia, Harvard, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania. Those tutors work with students at the Global Teaching Project’s residential programs, held for students several times a year at Mississippi universities (and virtually during the pandemic). The college tutors also provide instruction by video conference, often multiple times per week, to students throughout the year as part of our schools’ regularly scheduled classes.

University of Pennsylvania Junior, William Harkless, joined the Global Teaching Project in the summer of 2021 and tutors both AP® Physics and AP® Computer Science Principles. He is a model not only for fellow tutors, but also for his students–especially so because he also grew up and attended high school in Mississippi.

In addition to his regular tutoring duties, William had the opportunity to visit more than a dozen of our high schools in-person at the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. William recently spoke with the Global Teaching Project’s Brian Dolan about his experiences.

Hey, William, thanks for joining. Let’s start with the basics: Where are you from? What has your educational journey looked like?

I’m William, and I’m from Jackson, Mississippi–born and raised. I’ve been there my entire life. I went to Walton Elementary in Jackson, then McWillie Elementary—that’s a Montessori program in North Jackson. Then I was able to attend middle school and high school at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School on scholarship. And I had a lot of support from my family, too. They worked with me, you know, strengthening my reading math skills, things like that. I had a great support network.

I graduated from St. Andrew’s in 2019, and currently attend the University of Pennsylvania. I’m studying Systems Engineering, I have a minor in Math, and I’m pursuing a minor in Computer Science right now.

You’ve obviously been very successful, and you mentioned your support network. What about it do you think helped you thrive academically, especially in STEM subjects?

I have always had a knack for math. It just came easily and I was fascinated by it. I specifically remember in 4th and 5th grade, my teacher would always give me extra assignments and teach me extra stuff. I would specifically come to him, always pressing him with more questions. Curiosity was stressed a lot, diligence, hard work, and just a willingness to learn. And I was fortunate enough to have multiple teachers who would always encourage curiosity. I think I have to give them credit for the strong foundation that I had—it makes it much easier to excel in classes even now.

Morton High School, August 2021

Can you tell me about the in-person visits you made to participating schools?

When I played basketball at St. Andrews, we would often travel very far across Mississippi, but I would say my trip down to the schools was my first time in the area, because it was the first time I went down there with the intention of visiting, you know, focusing on the surroundings, meeting people.

Usually the drives were about an hour, two hours long. Go into the Delta, tons of greenery, just trees and crops as far as the eyes can see. When you finally get to the city, it’s very small, very rural. Even being from Jackson, it’s nothing like Jackson was, and Jackson is pretty rural for a capital of a state. So, I took an appreciation from going to these places, and from meeting the people there. I felt privileged to be able to do what I could to help. And from just hearing their perspectives.

What were the schools like?

A lot of schools, as I mentioned, were in very rural areas. The schools were pretty small. And you can just see the history in the infrastructure. For example my grandmother, when she heard that I was going to these schools, she was like, “Oh yeah, I’m familiar with these places,” and she’s giving me stories about schools and the places that I’d been to. You know, these are impoverished areas, so the resources that could help to upgrade certain things and support the academic environment in these different cities—it’s just not there, it’s not something that they can focus on.

What about inside the classroom?

Inside the classrooms, they were comparable to any other high school, where, you know, in that success is possible. The technology is there and if they needed to do something—like absolutely needed to do something—they could figure out a way, but on a scale of convenience, it definitely differed school to school.

Leland High School, August 2021

Did you have a message you tried to share at the schools?

I did try to show that it’s possible to come from somewhere small and go somewhere bigger. It’s perfectly okay to want to stay home and have your priorities elsewhere, but if this is something you do desire, to make sure you put your best effort into achieving that end. So, if you’d like to go out of state, taking AP’s is a great thing–working hard, learning how to problem solve will serve you well. But if you want to stay home, there are opportunities where it would still serve you well. It just opens a lot of doors for you, which is never a bad thing.

What kind of impact do you think you had in visiting the schools?

For some students, I could see a little spark in their eyes, like “Oh wow this is kinda cool, maybe I’ll consider that”, or “maybe it is possible.” Or “If someone close to home was able to do all these things and go to all these places and have these great experiences, maybe I could too.”

I tried to be an inspiration and encourage these students that, you know, regardless of what your background is, doors will open for you, depending on how seriously you take these opportunities that are being afforded to you now. Being able to take AP Physics or AP Computer Science can open doors for you in the future. You just don’t know. Give yourself that edge, while you have the chance.

Do you think visiting the schools will impact your tutoring sessions and the other work you continue to do with the Global Teaching Project?

Definitely. I feel like the kids are engaged. Because I’ve seen them before, I’ve spoken to them. I think that familiarity definitely helps. Rather than me being some random person just coming in like “Hey guys let’s learn this”, we’re already familiar with each other, so I think a comfortable learning environment definitely adds to the experience, which makes my job way easier.

Humphreys High School, August 2021

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, I want to go work in industry, see what kind of big problems are out there, work on them with teams and companies, until I get tired of that. Then, once I had my fun maybe I’d come back and do something like this.