Class of 2021: Batten Student Driven to Help Others Feel Seen, Heard and Respected

Matt Gillam (BA '21) will bring his leadership skills and passion for service to the classroom this fall as a Teach for America corps member. (Graphic by Macy Brandon)
Matt Gillam (BA '21) will bring his leadership skills and passion for service to the classroom this fall as a Teach for America corps member. (Graphic by Macy Brandon) 

Matt Gillam (BA ’21), a proud Long Islander, knew he wanted to be a Batten student from the moment he learned about the School. For a polymath like Gillam, that’s saying something.

He left his Long Island high school, Half Hollow Hills, as president of the Robotics Club and a four-year member of the architecture club. He’s leaving the University of Virginia as an education policy wonk, president of the Batten Undergraduate Council, director of Camp Kesem, a sleepaway camp for children impacted by a parent’s cancer, and chair of Hillel, a Jewish student organization.

“Batten’s graduates are tasked with finding solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, and the tightknit Batten community creates engaged and passionate leaders,” Gillam said. “Being able to engage with folks like that on a small scale has totally shaken up what I thought a college experience could be.”

Despite the seemingly disparate interests, Gillam pinpointed the common thread running through them, as well as how his Batten experience applied to his collegiate activities and now drives his career plans and ambitions.

“Every organization I’ve had the opportunity to serve is basically about making somebody feel seen, heard and respected,” Gillam said. “As the undergraduate council president, I’m the connection point between my class and the administration, funneling information in each direction and providing feedback; Hillel is about exploring your Judaism and what that means to your collegiate identity; and Kesem is about creating a space in which kids can be their authentic selves.”

For instance, in response to student stress and perceived learning barriers, Gillam helped petition to re-adopt the optional credit/no credit grading system for this academic year.

Gillam found he had to bring all of his Batten leadership skills to the table to drum up participation and enthusiasm in the midst of the monotony of COVID.

“How can I get people to log on to yet another Zoom call? How can I make people feel as strongly about this thing as I do? That became the guiding principle for everything I’ve done for the past year,” Gillam said. “I tried to provide a sense of ownership and agency to people—a space for co-creation.”

That paid off in droves on Giving Tuesday last December, when Gillam had to ask 45 brand-new camp counselors to participate in an all-day virtual fundraiser for Camp Kesem against 136 other collegiate chapters. By instigating a friendly competition between old counselors and new, he kept it light and playful, encouraging teammates to dress up, sing silly songs and play games to motivate them to keep texting friends and family to ask for donations.

By the end of the day, UVA’s Camp Kesem chapter had raised $70,000, “shattering its goal by tens of thousands of dollars,” Gillam said, and finishing second nationwide, behind a collegiate chapter that’s more than twice as big as the one he leads.

Although Gillam had worked as a counselor at multiple camps before applying to Kesem—and had worked with kids in all sorts of other settings—his original application was rejected. He only got into the organization—one that he would lead and would ultimately steer his life choices—off the wait list.

Between sharing time and space with the camp kids, and focusing on education policy during his time at Batten, Gillam learned something about his own identity, something that would drive him to join Teach for America after graduating from UVA this month: “Working with children makes me feel most authentically and strongly myself. Getting to be silly and crazy, but also assisting kids in setting and achieving lofty goals—that is where I thrive.”

As a TFA corps member, Gillam will lead his own elementary classroom in a low-income area of Washington, D.C., for two years while earning a master’s degree in education.

He acknowledges the enormous challenge of teaching children, particularly without a degree or experience in education. But Gillam said he believes his experiences as a Batten student will bolster his classroom skills. “I recognize that you haven’t taught until you’ve taught, but I feel prepared to ask the right questions, and I know how to learn, how to integrate feedback, how to listen to people,” Gillam said. “Those are all things I had to grow into when I came to Batten.”

He also intends to keep pulling on that common thread, his guiding principle from his student leadership days, and to make it a prominent part of his classroom and teaching philosophy: “You’re never too young to be heard, seen and respected. No matter who you are or how young you are, your agency and humanity are to be heard and respected.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

Stay Up To Date with the Latest Batten News and Events