As the Class of 2021 prepares for commencement, May 6–8, The College Today will highlight how some of our graduating seniors spent their time at CofC, and what the future holds.

Jayla Cunningham never intended to pursue a job as an elementary school physical education teacher. But things changed after she started taking classes for her coaching minor. The more she started learning about physical education and the impact of exercise on younger bodies, the more she was attracted to that career.

“I kind of realized that this is my calling,” she says.

Cunningham will walk across the stage in the Cistern Yard next week with a degree in physical education teacher education. The native of Blythewood, South Carolina, is hoping to secure a job at an elementary school in the Midlands of the Palmetto State this fall.

She knows it will be a challenge. For many years, school districts across the nation have cut programs to save money, and in some cases, physical education has been on the chopping block. But Cunningham says that only makes her more determined.

“It makes me want to keep pushing, make a change, and show how important physical education is within everybody’s life,” she says.

And Cunningham isn’t someone who shies away from a challenge. She just finished the first year of her six-year contract as a member of the Army National Guard, while also completing her final year in College. She eventually would like to attend Officer Candidate School and become a U.S. Army Officer.

But not before she takes a stand against childhood obesity. Cunningham says physical education is vital in fighting childhood obesity in the United States. A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 20% of children ages 6 to 11, and 21% of students 12 to 19 were designated as obese. As a former high school soccer player, Cunningham says she understands the importance of exercise and nutrition.

“Obesity is basically an American problem,” she says. “I feel like if we can teach children healthier habits, better life habits, and exercises they can do on their own, we can help combat obesity.”

This past semester, Cunningham spent time in the classroom and online student teaching at James Simons Montessori School in Charleston. She says COVID-19 made things a little challenging when it came to working with children in P.E. class. She recalls that during the semester, students were told to stand on an assigned dot on the gym floor in order to keep them socially distanced from one another.

“It was kind of hard figuring out different lessons that allowed them to keep six feet apart and still keep them moving around a lot,” she says.

Then, the answer hit her.

“It was completely out of my comfort zone,” she says with a smile. “I taught dance lessons.”

Specifically, line dancing. With line dancing, every student moved in the same direction with the same number of steps. It turned out to be the perfect exercise for social distancing.

As for her time at the College, Cunningham will leave with fond memories of CofC.

“I can honestly say that you can get a well-rounded education while being at the College of Charleston,” she says. “I do know that, especially with some of the professors, you can build really strong, long-lasting relationships, and even build professional relationships.”

Featured image by Heather Moran