A four-time state tennis champion in Vermont, Brendan Cullen's collegiate career at Cornell was certainly less decorated. But his experience helped shape his future, which has been one of remarkable service.
For tennis player Brendan Cullen, the value of athletics at Cornell wasn't in winning. "I was an under .500 player," he recalls, on a team that was similarly situated. But that experience helped shape what is becoming a remarkable career of service.
Cullen grew up in Woodstock, Vermont, where his father taught middle school and coached tennis. He gave his son his first racquet when he was three years old. At eight Cullen became a competitive player, and in high school he won the Vermont state singles championship four years in a row, and was also All-American. Cornell tennis recruited him.
Cullen went to Cornell. "Woodstock's a small town, and Cornell's this big, diverse, elite school that wanted me to play tennis," he says. But the education he was to receive was different from what he expected.
At Cornell, "I learned that in Vermont I was a huge fish in a small pond," says Cullen. Cornell forced him to look at himself differently. "My self-esteem had a large sports component, and I was forced to ask 'what else am I good at?'"
He found his athletic background gave him the self-discipline "that enabled me to succeed in the classroom." He even spent his junior year studying at Oxford, where he also played tennis. "I played everyone from teenagers to 50-something former Wimbledon players. England has a better balance between the relative value of sports and academics," he notes.
The Cornell tennis team kept his spot waiting for him "without any ramifications" caused by his absence. And he decided that, after Cornell, he wanted to follow his father into teaching.
"But my dad was in the same classroom for 25 out of his 30 years of teaching. It's part generational," Cullen notes, but he didn't want to repeat his father's career quite that closely.
After graduating with a B.A. in English in 1994, he became a middle school language arts teacher in Baltimore, Md., as an early participant in Teach for America, a program that matches recent college graduates with teaching opportunities in low income areas. "For me it provided my best opportunity to teach at the time, and my biggest challenge," says Cullen.
Cullen left teaching temporarily to earn a Master's degree from Harvard Divinity School, then returned as a founding Campus Director for Citizen Schools, a Boston-based non-profit after school program. From there he went to New York, where he first served as Director of the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) Scholars program, then as a project manager for the New York City Department of Education's Autonomy Zone.
"I've always wanted to surround myself with change makers, people smarter than me, more motivated, that have bigger ideas," he says. He's taking these goals to his latest venture, Education Pioneers, where he is San Francisco area managing director. "Here we want to encourage people with different skill sets to help kids," Cullen says, "and teach them how to apply these skills to education."
But not necessarily as teachers. The program takes graduate students in education, law, business, policy, and similar disciplines and places them in 10-week summer internships with schools and other education organizations. "They go into hotbeds of innovation" like the Oakland Unified School District, where "everything is being rebooted," according to Cullen. It doesn't always work out that way, though. Sometimes they meet with slow-moving bureaucracy, but even then "seeing the bureaucratic burden is good."
"We really want to change the way programs are done," Cullen says. Other former Ivy athletes are helping him reach this goal. Among current Education Pioneers fellows are Emilie Liebhoff, who captained Dartmouth's hockey team to an Ivy League title before graduating with a B.A. in English, and is now pursuing an M.B.A. at Cornell, and Jean Eisberg, an All-American skier at Dartmouth who is now pursuing a Masters in City Planning degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
That former athletes are drawn to this challenge does not surprise Cullen. "The heart of athletic competition is the discipline and joy of taking on a huge challenge with the support of a team," he observes. "Improving our public education system is a daunting task that requires bringing together a hybrid team of leaders."
Cullen's Cornell education -- in the classroom and on the courts -- fits in as well. "The challenge of juggling school work with athletics and social time while being bombarded with new and often differing ideas and ways of being in the world provided fantastic preparation for what I now face on a daily basis."
— Stephen Eschenbach