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Gates Crasher

Bill Gates surprised students by attending the Teach For America reception held at the Ed School last week.

Bill GatesThe students seemed genuinely surprised. Although Bill Gates was at Harvard that day to speak to a packed crowd in Sanders Theatre during the last stop on his three-day, five-campus tour, none of the newly minted Teach For America teachers gathered in the Eliot Lyman Room ever expected the computer giant to walk into their party.

But that's exactly what he did. And the low buzz that accompanies any gathering suddenly grew much louder as the excited students started to whisper back and forth, "Bill Gates!"

Gates was the surprise guest of Harvard President Drew Faust and Dean Kathleen McCartney, who had come up with the idea to host the reception for the 55 Harvard seniors as a way not only to highlight their achievement -- 46,000 Ivy League students applied for less than 5,000 slots in the highly competitive teacher training program -- but also to honor the importance of education.

Dressed simply in a light blue oxford -- no tie, no sports coat -- Gates spoke off the cuff for about five minutes to the small gathering, which also included Ed School staff and students, many of them former TFA teachers.

"It's fantastic that you are all going to put your considerable talents into education," he said. "What's amazing is that not only did a huge number of students apply this year, but only about 10 percent got accepted. Clearly you have something special."

Gates said he was intrigued by the often-debated question, "What makes a good teacher?" Acknowledging that there may never be an answer that pleases everyone, he urged the students to explore ways they can make a difference.

"The status quo is not great," he said. "You need to change it."

After his remarks, Gates eased into the crowd and the students quickly clustered around him, telling him where they would be teaching in the fall and asking him questions.

One student, Jeremy Wall, a senior from South Carolina who is going to a high school in North Carolina, said he was still shocked that Gates had come to meet them.

"I knew he was on campus and a friend saw him in the science center, which makes sense," he said, "but I had no idea he was coming here."

Christian Rubalcaba, a senior headed to the Bay Area in California, said the visit completely took him by surprise.

"It's phenomenal that he came to speak to us about education," he said. "His earlier talk at Sanders was mostly about the economy, so to come here to talk to this small group speaks to his larger agenda. It's wonderful. I'm humbled by his presence here."

Rubalcaba, in many ways, epitomizes why Gates is on his college tour. His earlier speech in Sanders was called, "Giving Back: Finding the Best Way to Make a Difference." Rubalcaba grew up in a low-income community in Chicago, with immigrant parents who didn't make it past the fifth grade but who urged their children to go further.

"Education -- that was our family song," Rubalcaba says. "I was going up against the odds from day one, but now I have a chance to serve as a role model. Teach For America really is a humanitarian project. It highlights the human work that we as citizens of the United State should be doing more frequently. Now I'm going to be able to tell my new students that dreaming is worth a shot."


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