© 2015 President and Fellows of Harvard College
Questions or comments about this page? Send and email to the Web Editor.

Read the HGSE Publishing Policies and Disclaimers.

Trademark Notice

Harvard Graduate School of Education
Appian Way, Cambridge, MA 02138

Six on Six

By Ed. Magazine, on January 8, 2015 11:33 AM
From a pool of six thousand, six graduates doing great work on six continents (sorry, Antarctica).

Readers of this magazine will not be surprised that the majority of our graduates live and work in North America. But did you know that Ed School alums are also spread across every continent? Well, except Antarctica, the coldest and windiest of the seven continents. (We tried hard to find one calling the South Pole home, but after spending a few months bundled in coats and snow boots on Appian Way, it looks like none of our graduates have opted to work where the temperature sometimes falls to -135 degrees.)

Still, we had no problem finding graduates on the other six continents. We have captured the stories of a handful here. These stories are certainly just a drop in the bucket — or perhaps, a drop in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic oceans — but they are great examples of the work being done in the field of education by our alumni in schools and districts, at nonprofits and NGOs, as education entrepreneurs, and with government agencies.

North AmericaNorth America: Sara Wolf

One of the tenets that Sara Wolf, Ed.M.’04, learned at the Ed School in the Learning and Teaching Program has been a guiding principle for her ever since. In fact, it guided her all the way to her current home in Haiti.

“The school instilled in us that we should get to know our students really well. All my students were recent immigrants, many of them from Haiti,” she says, referring to her time at the International School in New York City. “In order to learn about them, I did a lot of traveling to where the students were from. I went to Ecuador, Peru, India, Cambodia, Mali, Vietnam, Bangladesh.” And, of course, Haiti.

Wolf decided to move to Haiti in 2009 after doing teacher training there and falling in love with the culture, language, and people. Today, she is working at a small grassroots NGO called AMURT (@amurt).

“I was drawn to AMURT because it is really local,” she says. “They don’t just parachute in and decide what people need. They have been there all along.”
Founded in India in 1965, AMURT has the very broad mission of improving the lives of the world’s poor and those affected by calamity or conflict. One of the projects Wolf worked on in Haiti was to create child-friendly, safe spaces where children could be educated after the big earthquake in 2010.

“It became obvious that you couldn’t do education without ensuring an emergency response. … We had to figure out how to merge psychosocial services and education services to return things to normalcy,” Wolf says.

In total, 3,000 children were involved in psychosocial activities though AMURT after the earthquake, and families reported that, as a result, the children were doing a lot better emotionally and were more communicative, Wolf says.

Though the work on the ground was immensely satisfying, Wolf also saw a need to work with the Haitian government in order to make a sustaining difference.

“I was convinced that I had to work at the systemic level as well as grassroots level to get the changes to take root,” she says.

This insight has led to her current project — working with the Ministry of Education to establish the first-ever national teacher certification program under the auspices of Université Quisqueya. “Currently there is very little accountability and standardization in the programs available. And teachers don’t have the tools they need to handle the classrooms they have, which are multigrade with multiple languages being spoken.”

Most people in Haiti speak Creole, although the official language of the country is French. The teachers are also paid so poorly that they usually have to work another job and therefore don’t have time to grade papers or do planning outside of the classroom.

“Combine all that with child protection issues like children showing up without eating or without access to clean water,” she says, and you see what a huge challenge the teachers there face.

Wolf says that 400 teachers have already gone through AMURT’s teacher training, and she is seeing results. “Teachers feel more free to play games, do collaborative work. They also feel like what they do really matters,” she says, “despite very difficult working conditions and very low salaries.”

Despite these victories, frustrations still arise daily.

“We ran into a devastating turn last week when one school we had been working with very closely got bulldozed for political reasons that no one is being transparent about,” she says. How does she deal with these difficulties as well as what she calls the “daily grind” of not always having electricity, water, or Internet access?

“We look at the big picture and not let it get us down. I work with a great team of Haitians, and seeing their resolve really keeps me going,” Wolf says. That, and she meditates. A lot.

Christine Junge is a freelance writer whose last piece in Ed. looked at Spark Academy, started by alums, that incorporates more physical activity into the school day.

AsiaAsia: Ethan Van Drunen and Jamie Vinson

When Ethan Van Drunen, Ed.M.’10, and Jamie Vinson, Ed.M.’10, arrived in Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, in July 2011, just a year after graduating from the Ed School, the streets were nearly empty of cars and most buses were from pre-World War II Japan. Today, there are still no McDonald’s or international banks in the country, yet over the past three years, Van Drunen and Vinson have been part of a delicate change.

“We chose Myanmar for the same off-the-beaten-track reasons that travelers might visit — it promised adventure, new experiences, and since I had been working on education in fragile states, I was interested in the country’s story,” says Vinson.

Vinson currently works as an assistant programme specialist for education for UNESCO, where she helps coordinate the organization’s technical assistance to the country’s Ministry of Education, particularly for sector-wide education planning. She also assists with the management of UNESCO’s Strengthening Pre-service Teacher Education in Myanmar project, focusing on capacity-building in Burma’s education colleges.

The married couple, both graduates of the International Education Policy Program, credit one of Professor Fernando Reimers’ courses with providing a framework for producing change at scale in the global context. This perspective was particularly important working in Burma, a country experiencing a sea change of reform in politics, economics, the economy, and education. Once a closed, secretive nation, the world has slowly been opening to this country, with Vinson and Van Drunen committed to a school system consisting of 40,000 government schools, more than 8 million students, and approximately 300,000 teachers.

“It has been fun to see the overlap between my work and Jamie’s,” says Van Drunen, headmaster at Myanmar International School Yangon, an inclusive British curriculum school with 550 preK–12 students from Burma and 22 other countries.

“I knew through Jamie that the latest draft of Myanmar’s new education law didn’t have a provision for inclusive education for students with disabilities,” he says. “My school was able to partner with another research institution to help produce a report on what inclusive schools actually look like in a Myanmar context.”

Vinson takes great joy in what the opportunity working with UNESCO in Burma has afforded her in terms of truly being a part of systemwide improvement across the country.

“This is the first time I’ve had an up-close and behind-the-scenes seat at a national-level education reform process,” she says. Prior, she taught at the International School of Myanmar along with Van Drunen, who was the school’s curriculum coordinator.

Beyond educational change, these past three years in Burma have been a unique time of transition for the couple themselves.

“At the time we moved to Myanmar, we had no idea that we would end up staying and having two kids while living in Yangon, the country’s largest city. In fact, we found out Jamie was pregnant only one day before getting on the airplane!” says Van Drunen.

Vinson, now the mother of 2-year-old Wilder and baby Laken (born in October), relishes this unique opportunity to raise her children as global citizens.

“For me, the most powerful experience of living in Myanmar hasn’t been work-related. Rather it’s been trekking with our infant son through the mountains of Shan State in northern Myanmar,” she says. “I get chills thinking about how many languages and cultures our family has been able to interact with just within this country.”

To them, global education is now inherently a family business, and their goal is to improve it whenever and wherever they can.

“We are both motivated by the ideals of global citizenship,” they say, “and the transformational power of quality education.”

Matt Weber, Ed.M.’11

EuropeEurope: Leah Schabas

Londoner Leah Schabas, Ed.M.’13, never really liked having a cold lunch from home when she was in elementary school. “Soggy sandwiches and an ugly lunchbox,” she remembers. It wasn’t until she was on the hot meal plan at her private secondary school that she realized food at school could be so much more. “Such a treat to have a ‘proper’ meal for lunch,” she says.

These days, back in England, Schabas is on a mission to help revamp her country’s school lunches as coordinator for an ambitious new undertaking by the government called the School Food Plan (@SchFoodPlan). She joined the team directly after she graduated from the Ed School’s International Education Policy Program.

The plan, she explains, germinated two years ago when Michael Gove, then secretary of state for education in the United Kingdom, wanted two questions answered: How could the country get 5 million children in about 22,000 schools eating well, and what role should cooking and food play in schools more broadly? A team started visiting schools and talking with stakeholders — students, teachers, cooks, chefs, parents, volunteers, and farmers. They also analyzed the economics of school food.

What they found was disheartening. Nearly 20 percent of children in the United Kingdom leave elementary school obese. And the hot meals being served were not only not nutritious, but often “bland, boring, and beige.” Although some progress had been made since the horrors of unhealthy school lunches had been made public by folks like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, interest in hot lunch had plummeted to a dismal 43 percent of students, with schools losing money and making up costs from other parts of the budget. And lunches brought from home were rarely healthier — only about 1 percent met nutritional standards.

But wanting change wasn’t just a matter of health and money. Children who learn to eat healthier in school tend to eat healthy as adults, Schabas says. Research shows that nutrition — good and bad — affects learning.

“There are many arguments to support the importance of food education and meals in schools as a part of pupils’ educational experience,” Schabas says. “There is also a powerful paradox in that on the one hand, there is a child obesity crisis. At the same time, we are also faced with hundreds of thousands of children at risk of food poverty in this country. Interestingly, school meals used to be free in England. Following a recommendation in the School Food Plan, the current government has now introduced universal free school meals for all 5- to 7-year-olds.”

The plan is an actual set of steps, not just a series of recommendations. It includes new food standards for schools to follow. It is working to better train the nation’s 58,000 school cooks and to elevate their status while motivating them to prepare healthier, tastier meals that will eventually increase the percentage of students eating hot lunch to at least 70 percent. The plan set up breakfast clubs in the poorest schools and has made cooking a compulsory part of the curriculum up to the age of 14. (Even young students can become involved with food in school, Schabas says, learning to cut herbs with safety scissors and shaking up sauces.) It also heavily focuses on the role that teachers can play by providing head teachers with training in nutrition and doing something that Schabas says is critical to the long-term success of the plan: helping teachers develop ways to change the eating culture in their schools.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit many brilliant schools around the country,” she says. “Some truly inspirational head teachers and other teachers have been great spokespeople and figureheads for the importance of school food. It really is critical for teachers, particularly school leadership, to buy into this and understand why this matters. Without leadership, there is only so much others can do.”

Lory Hough

South AmericaSouth America: David Palacios

When David Palacios, Ed.M.’13, left the Ed School, he left with more than just his master’s from the Technology, Innovation, and Education Program — he had the foundation for three education-based businesses. Palacios had known he wanted to start a business when he finished his master’s, so he took advantage of Harvard’s many entrepreneurial classes and experiences while he was a student.

“I took some courses at the Business School and then took things a step further…, I took classes at the MIT Media Lab and through Harvard’s i-lab as well,” he says. On top of the lessons he learned in these programs, he also met mentors and contacts. “It was a good place to learn and to practice. I did more than just learn.”

That practice, as he put it, allowed him to hit the ground running after graduation. Unable to decide which out of his three business ideas he should pursue, he decided — against advice — to start all three at once.

“People kept telling that me I couldn’t do it, that it was too much of a load to develop all three at the same time,” he says. And it turned out that those people were right. But Palacios wasn’t discouraged. He decided to co-found one business that could encompass all of them: an incubator for education-based startups in Latin America.

Palacios, who is from Colombia, based InncubatED (@inncubated) in Bogotá. He knew it was a good time to be working in educational startups in the country because the economy in Latin American was growing, unlike in many other places in the world. The government was also very supportive of businesses in the education sector, offering many grants, for example. On the other hand, venture capital doesn’t really exist in Colombia.

“I was very surprised to find that out, just coming from the United States, which is one of the most advanced countries in terms of venture capital funds. The model has been around there for years,” he says.

And so in South America, Palacios’ company is filling that void in education. Unique, perhaps, is that his company has two models for developing businesses: incubation and factory mode. Incubation is the traditional approach to investing in startups: InncubatED identifies high-potential startups that already exist and supports them with resources and expertise in exchange for equity in the business. The second model is more innovative.

“We start developing a company around an initial idea and then find entrepreneurs to take over the companies we start,” he says.

Factory mode is how InncubatED developed its first two businesses, both based on Palacios’ ideas from his days at Harvard. Arukay is an afterschool program that teaches courses in STEM skills. Edufolium is an online job marketplace just for teachers around the world. They are currently looking for entrepreneurs to take on these two businesses.

InncubatED is also currently funding two new businesses, both using the incubation model. Arunovo, an online learning provider, was founded by Harvard students. Palacios says it is similar to the U.S.-based Embanet. The second company, EDUmetrika, is working with a school to develop a new kind of school information system that emphasizes the use of data — metrics and key performance indicators — to help with decision-making. 

Palacios says that what startups come next will depend on how successful these initial startups are.

“Those profits will provide the funds for other startups. Otherwise, we will have to get investors,” which he says could be hard in Colombia. But Palacios is hopeful and looking forward to a bright, expansive future. “It’s been a very productive year. I hope we’ll be around to create the most ed startups in Latin America and beyond.”

— Christine Junge

AfricaAfrica: Liz Grossman

Her biggest joy working and living in Africa is also her biggest challenge. Liz Grossman, Ed.M.’13, loves discovering new things about a culture and sharing her culture with others. But, after working in Senegal for the past five years, and Cameroon for a year before that, mostly as a high school teacher, she also knows how challenging it is to make decisions in education in a culture and context that is not hers.

“No matter how long I live in Africa, I was not born and educated there,” the Philadelphia native and International Education Policy Program alum says. “The challenge is to find the way to bridge my experiences and ideas with the realities of what is on the ground,” especially in a way that makes sense to her students.

“I began to give grammar lessons with examples that Senegalese children could relate to, such as local pop stars or Senegalese wrestlers,” she says. “Once they could contextualize the information, they could understand, but figuring out how to contextualize that was the real hurdle.”

These days, she has taken her experience in the classroom to a nonprofit called Tostan, which means breakthrough in the Wolof language. Tostan is a nonprofit, based in Dakar, Senegal, that works directly with rural communities in six African countries as they lead and take ownership of their own development.

“Tostan’s mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights,” Grossman says. “We believe that through this mission, every person — woman, man, girl, and boy — is able to live a life of dignity.”
Last January, she worked as an internal communications and country relations officer, which involved working with traditional and online media. More recently, she has worked on external relations for a new project, the Tostan Training Center.

“Because of our innovative development model based on proven impacts, Tostan has received requests for training from many international NGOs and universities, individuals, and organizations working at the grassroots level,” Grossman says. “Our trainings will be for sale, and we will create a business model to earn money, which will then fund Tostan’s activities.”

Grossman is also part of another project focused on Africa: Cybraries, an idea she came up with during her first year teaching, when she realized her students didn’t really know how to use the Internet to do research.

“I gave my students a research paper on any topic they wanted and told them they needed to use diverse sources from within the past five years,” she says. “They thought it was impossible. ‘Miss, we live in Africa. We don’t have libraries with those resources.’ I had just gotten out of college and was very used to using the Internet for my research. … I began by teaching them about online research. … In the end, they successfully submitted eight-page research papers on topics they were passionate about.”

Grossman realized that more students in Senegal, including those at the university level, needed this kind of help. During her year at the Ed School, she began developing a plan to build Internet training centers, partnering with a Harvard Kennedy School graduate who was working in the Senegalese Ministry of Education. Currently, she is taking the project slowly, as she continues to build relations with the government and local partners — an approach that she says is truly African.

“What I love about Africa can be understood through the proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Here in Africa, everyone in the community is [involved] in the education of the children,” she says. “Teachers are generally respected as the experts in the classroom, but at home, and even in the neighborhood, adults take the responsibility to show all children the right way.”

— Lory Hough

AustraliaAustralia: Michael Lynch

Australia native Michael Lynch, Ed.M.’83, has always been drawn to the religious life but says he chose to join the Salesians, a Catholic religious order, after graduating from college in 1964 because of the activities of its founder, a 19th-century Italian priest.

“What attracted me to the Salesians was the work of Don Bosco for underprivileged youth, including work in developing countries,” Lynch says. Since then, he has taught economics, social studies, mathematics, and religion; has served as a principal; and has been the leader of Salesian residences in locations ranging from Melbourne to Tasmania.   

Lynch says he’s proud of the fact that the schools he’s worked in — which have tended to serve working-class students — have had good records and that “a high percentage of the students got jobs; some of them have done quite well from an academic point of view.” Among the graduates he mentions are the archbishop of Perth, the secretary of Victoria’s largest trade union, and a professor at the University of Adelaide who got his Ph.D. from Harvard. “They have done these things because they’ve had ability,” he adds. “It was probably just an accident of history that I happened to be there.”

After eight years as a teacher in Chadstone, a suburb of Melbourne, and eight more as a principal in Adelaide, 500 miles to the west, Lynch chose to enroll in the former Teaching, Curriculum, and Learning Environments Program at the Ed School.

“I didn’t speak a language other than English, so it was either a matter of going to England or going to the states,” he says. “As you can well understand, from Adelaide or Melbourne, there is nowhere further than Boston. It’s pretty well as far as you can go.”

Despite the distance, there were still Salesians to be found — Lynch points out they currently operate in 131 countries — and during his year or so in Boston, he lived at the Saint Dominic Savio High School in East Boston. “I used to take three trains on the underground to get to Harvard,” he says.
Lynch says he enjoyed the experience enough that he applied for and was accepted into the school’s doctoral program but decided instead to go back to Australia.

“It was good to get right out of the scene I’d been familiar with in Australia and to be able to cope in another scene too,” he says. “But at that stage I was really too old to be starting a doctorate, and my mother was elderly and declining, and I thought I’d achieved as much as I could.”

Back in Australia, Lynch went back to teaching in classrooms in Melbourne’s Ferntree Gully and then in Tasmania, where he was subsequently asked to run a residence set up by the Catholic Church for students attending the University of Tasmania.

Lynch says that his wide range of experience has proved a good background for his current assignment, which he has held since 1996: director of the Australian Salesian Missions office, raising about $2 million a year for overseas aid and development, much of which goes to help build and maintain schools in countries ranging from East Timor to the Solomon Islands to farther afield. It’s a job that requires a significant amount of travel.

“When we send money abroad, it’s important to follow up with a visit just to see how things are going,” he says. “One’s presence and one’s visiting can be a source of encouragement, and you also see things on the ground.”

A humble, easygoing man who likes to poke gentle fun at the differences between Americans and Australians, Lynch says that he
has no plans to stop working anytime soon.

“Our Salesians usually keep going for as long as they can,” he says.

Jonathan Sapers is a freelance writer whose last piece in Ed. looked at identifying possible dropouts by the first grade.

Campaign Banner

Learn to Change the World

The Campaign for Harvard Graduate School of Education enables HGSE to fulfill its vision of changing the world through education by expanding opportunity and improving outcomes.

Learn More