“Game changers and innovators. Difference-makers. The best of their generation.” These are just some of the words used to describe the individuals named to Forbes’ “30 under 30,” an annual list composed of “the best and brightest young minds in the country.” Earning a place on the list is no small feat, and those who are chosen must undergo an intense vetting process by industry experts in their respective fields. In the end, only two individuals from each of 15 categories — including energy, social entrepreneurship, art and style, education, finance, music, and technology — are recognized out of thousands of potential candidates each year. And this year, Zakiya Smith, Ed.M.’07, was one of them.
After completing her master’s degree in education policy and management at the Ed School, Smith became a serious “game changer” when she was appointed senior adviser for education for the White House Domestic Policy Council, playing a direct role in what some have called the Obama administration’s boldest and most innovative higher education proposals including those related to college access, affordability, and completion.
“I got to experience a variety of different challenges, participate in nearly every higher education policy debate, and craft new policy that has shaped the conversation in higher education in important ways,” Smith says, citing her work on the college scorecard and the financial aid shopping sheet as among the initiatives she found most interesting. “I am proud of all of the major policy accomplishments on which I worked, but I’m probably most passionate about consumer information in higher education, and arming families and students with the tools to make good decisions about college.”
Despite the passion Smith had for the work she was doing in the Obama administration, she recently decided to move on to new challenges. She is now the strategy director for student financial support at the Lumina Foundation, a private foundation at which she leads the work to develop new models of student financial support for higher education through strategic grantmaking.
“I feel like I had a great run working through nearly all of the president’s first term in office,” Smith says. “However, when I was presented with the great opportunity to do something amazing in a nongovernmental role, I took it, and haven’t regretted that decision.”
Smith finds that there are many advantages to working outside of government. Instead of the high-pressure, high-stress environment where she had to be on-hand to respond to everyday crises, Smith says that now she has much more control over the substance of her work, is able to think more about the long-term, and is allowed more time for her personal relationships.
“If you had asked me last year where I wanted to be in five years, I would have said that I wanted a job that was less stressful so that I could focus on taking care of myself, building my personal friendships and relationships, and buying a home,” she says. “With this move, I’ve accomplished a few of those things already, so five years from now, professionally, I hope to be continuing to forge ahead in this work, and hopefully building on progress that is made starting now.”
In particular, Smith says she has one big goal: for every student — but particularly low-income, minority, and first-generation college students — to have adequate preparation in high school for college, and for them all to have the opportunity to go to four-year colleges without incurring significant debt, if that is what they desire. Of course, Smith recognizes that there are numerous obstacles standing in the way, including high college prices, scarce financial aid, uncertainty about student loans, and stalled support from states for higher education. Nevertheless, she remains optimistic.
“I don’t think any of the major obstacles are insurmountable and I believe there are solutions for every challenge, we just need to figure out what they are,” she says. “I hope to be out of the job by the time I’m 45 because the American education system is so improved that I can move into retirement!”