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Narrowing the Gap: Shiroy Aspandiar, Ed.M.'15

How one Houston-area alum is working to close the opportunity gap for low-income students.

Shiroy AspandiarGet into college, and earn your degree: these are the hopes, and often the explicit instructions, of parents who aspire to see their children achieve a college education. But is graduating from high school enough to prepare a student for the transition to college?

For affluent students, the answer is obvious. Campus visits, summer camps, afterschool activities, and internships aren’t optional; they provide the experience necessary to succeed in college and thrive in the workplace. After four years of teaching AP World History and AP Psychology in a predominantly low socio-economic area of Houston, Shiroy Aspandiar, Ed.M.’15, recognized how necessary these opportunities are — but he also saw how elusive they can be for underserved students. So in 2014, he and three other Teach For America alumni — Karthik Soora, Neeraj Salhotra, and Juanita Parra — co-founded One Jump, a nonprofit that serves as a one-stop resource for the extracurricular learning opportunities that prepare high school students for college.

“For the students we work with, most of whom are underserved, promoting college access simply isn’t enough,” says Aspandiar, who acts as One Jump’s CEO. “The opportunity gap they face isn’t actually about the opportunities themselves, but more so about the social capital — the connections, the experiences, and the skills — that they can gain.”

One Jump’s online platform provides students, as well as parents and teachers, with information on college summer programs, internships, and a host of enrichment programs. These range from the Bezos Scholars Program at the Aspen Ideas Festival (for high school juniors) to Research Training in the Molecular Basis of Infectious Disease at Baylor Medical College in Texas (for college students). Curating all of this information — thousands of opportunities — is only the beginning. While One Jump’s reach grows, Aspandiar is also keeping an eye on the quality of students’ experience.

“We’re thinking more strategically about how to support kids with resources and curriculum that equip them with the tools they need to take advantage of the opportunities,” he says. “The big focus for us now is moving a bit away from the technology; it’s important, but we’re now focusing more on support for our students and our scholarship giving.”

In addition to the online platform, One Jump now offers curricula for writing resumes and personal statements, as well as a multitude of scholarships helping students access summer experiences and visit colleges. In 2018, One Jump expects to award more than $30,000 in direct support to students.

“Many of these experiences cost money, and most of the otherwise free opportunities require that the students pay for travel costs —­ so we’re helping meet that financial gap,” Aspandiar says.

One Jump’s guidance and support make it possible for students like Rodrigo Ortiz, now a student at Macalester College, to visit the school they are interested in attending. “Thanks to the help of the team at One Jump,” he wrote as testimonial on One Jump’s website, “I was able to acquire more knowledge and decide if it was a good fit for me. If it wasn't for [them] making me aware of and helping me apply to the fly-in, I probably would not be going to Macalester College."

The ability to recognize a need, and the instinct to create a solution, are the essential traits of an entrepreneur. At HGSE, Aspandiar found a learning community that nurtured both. While studying with faculty including Lecturer Lee Teitel and Associate Professor Karen Brennan, Aspandiar says, “I found myself embraced by a community of incredibly bright, resourceful, committed people who want to make meaningful, positive changes for the education system in America. And the beautiful part was, my classmates believed that they had a responsibility and the capacity to do so. Together we’re in this lab of learning, of innovation, and of curiosity to find out what's working and what's not, and preparing to take our findings back to reform the education systems in our own communities.”

Back in Houston, as One Jump continued to grow, Aspandiar sought out a community of like-minded individuals, similar to the one he found while at HGSE — “and in Houston, that didn’t really exist,” he says. Over coffee with a colleague, Natasha Azizi, he learned about Impact Hub, a global network of social entrepreneurs and problem solvers that was looking to come to Houston. Curiosity quickly gave way to action: rather than simply join, he offered to take on a leadership role in the organization. The result: Aspandiar co-founded the Impact Hub Houston while continuing to lead One Jump. After a bit over a year, Impact Hub Houston is growing — and in addition to building a local community of like-minded entrepreneurs, members are connected to a network of more than 17,000 colleagues in over 100 locations around the world.

“Social entrepreneurship doesn’t take place in isolation,” Aspandiar explains. “These ventures and individuals, the next One Jumps of the world, are going to need support — a community of colleagues, of mentors, and of talent, that will allow them to succeed. With Impact Hub Houston, we’re playing a part in building that ecosystem to support the emergence of more social ventures in Houston.

“To this day, building trust is one of my core values, as an educator and a leader,” he continues. “That vulnerability required to create trust — it’s hard to create, but so important.” Hard, to be sure — but it is one more challenge Aspandiar has accepted.