When Providence Ryan was a biology student at Schenectady High School, she learned how to be a teacher. With the guidance of biology teacher Annie Chien, she was often called on to lead the class through daily assignments — all of the students were.
“She was always a good teacher even in high school,” Chien said of Ryan. “That’s why I called on her all the time; she could do my job.”
Those lessons, when Chien handed the classroom over to the students, stuck with Ryan, who this summer sets out on her own teaching career in New York City.
“It was like real-time, us learning from our peers and us teaching and us solving problems together,” Ryan said, now a senior at Colgate University.
In April, Ryan, who will graduate later this month with degrees in biology and philosophy, was named the winner of Colgate’s 1819 Award — given to the student “whose character, scholarship and service to others best exemplify the university’s spirit.” It is considered the school’s most “selective and prestigious” award.
Recognized for her advocacy and promotion of open discourse around sexuality and sexual orientation and her academic research in Costa Rican rainforests, Ryan was praised by Colgate’s interim president, Jill Harsin, for working “to break down traditional academic barriers.”
“Colgate will forever be impacted by the way she upholds standards of leadership, support and service,” one of Ryan’s nominators wrote.
Ryan helped organize the school’s annual spring “QueerFest,” which brought more than 20 speakers and activities to campus to engage students in issues of sexuality. She also worked on school productions of “The Vagina Monologues” and “This is Not a Play About Sex.”
She said her involvement was spurred by an interest in creating open spaces for students to talk about sex, race, class, gender and more. She also worked as a resident adviser and was president of the school Advocates Club, similar to high school gay-straight alliances. She spent a summer climbing trees in the Costa Rican rainforest to study the effects of climate change on life in tree canopy.
“The whole goal is to have those diverse voices heard on campus because often they are not,” Ryan said. “Everyone who has a stake in the conversation should have their voice heard.”
After graduation, Ryan plans to move to New York City, where as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program she will teach high school biology and pursue a master’s degree in education.
Chien also taught in New York City for 10 years before she moved to Schenectady High School, where she has taught for the past eight years. She said the city will be a great place for Ryan to jump start her teaching career as reforms move fast and young teachers are expected to take leadership roles.
“It’s the best place for anyone to start, because they can learn so much in so little,” Chien said.
Chien said Ryan’s persistence and ability to find creative solutions will serve her well in the classroom. She advised Ryan to forget the politics that swirl around education and stay focused on “doing the work” for the students in her class.
“I know I have done my job right when people like Providence say I want to be like you and contribute back by being a teacher,” Chien said. “Maybe she’ll be my boss one day. Hopefully, she’ll come back to Schenectady, and she’ll teach my kid.”
While she’s ready for city life and thinks she may want to spend some time outside of New York state, Ryan didn’t rule out returning to Schenectady or the Capital Region, where she still has friends and family.
And she will always carry a very important Schenectady lesson with her, no matter where she goes.
“One of the most important things about Schenectady in general and the high school is that it is filled with so many different people who have different stories and identities and backgrounds,” Ryan said. “As a high schooler, I didn’t realize how valuable and important that was.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.