Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

Program Officer Francesca Mazzola’s favorite photo of her family is sunny and simple: it’s the early 1980s in Seattle, and her two older brothers and parents are smiling.

There’s two things about this photo that make it stand out, she says.

“One: no one in this picture speaks English, even though they had been in the US for six months at this point,” Mazzola says. “Second: everyone in this photo is happy, which is remarkable, since my brother had just been through treatment for leukemia.”

In fact, the photo was taken after her brother’s life was saved by a doctor engaging in an experimental bone marrow transplant for just 20 patients. Her brother was one of four patients to survive.

The moment captures part of an Italian family’s arduous journey – one that brought her family from Italy to the U.S. It’s an odyssey that gave Mazzola an acute awareness of the access to opportunities and advanced treatment that education can provide for families. When Mazzola’s brother was diagnosed, Mazzola’s father, an engineer, had written to every cancer center in the US, looking for a medical miracle. After corresponding with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, her father was able to secure a visa and find a job in Silicon Valley while her brother received treatment in Seattle.

In the years following her brother’s recovery and her family’s relocation to the Bay Area, Mazzola was born – into a household that exclusively spoke Italian.

“When I started school, I didn’t speak English,” said Mazzola. “I have a very clear memory of feeling inadequate.”

It was Mazzola’s teachers at the well-funded public school she attended in San Jose who taught Mazzola English, tutoring her after school to eventually feel fully fluent by sixth grade.

It’s this feeling – understanding what it means to have a champion and an advocate, and this prevailing sense of luck – that has since guided Mazzola through her career.

“The teachers I had access to, instead of seeing my language skills, or my dyslexia as a ‘deficiency of mental capacity,’ they saw potential for growth. It changed my mindset,” says Mazzola. “Not everyone has access to a school like that. I’m here to make sure that student success doesn’t require luck.”

Mazzola went on to attend Stanford University, where she eagerly explored a wide range of academic subjects, eventually switching her major from Electrical Engineering to Political Science.

“College was the most transformative experience of my life – for a variety of reasons,” says Mazzola. “I was given four years to explore completely different and unique areas of knowledge with some of the leading experts of the world. I was able to fully understand what brought me joy and passion.”

After college, she embarked on a master’s in African Studies at Oxford. She said she became fascinated by issues unique to Africa and ways to go about solving systemic problems.

“I was struck by the enormity of the problems faced in Africa, but also the potential for change,” says Mazzola. “I thought, if we could find a way to combine forces between government and aid, we could change the world.”

Mazzola’s interest in international affairs led her to a fellowship in Hungary, before continuing work in the San Francisco office of FSG, a social impact consulting firm. While working on global problems for a number of years, Mazzola was increasingly struck by the inequities prevalent in the U.S. – a fixation that eventually led her to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she has worked as a program officer since May 2018.

“I had been so focused on the international landscape…the thing that really resonated with me was the inequities that are still so deeply ingrained throughout the U.S.,” says Mazzola. “Education seemed like potentially one of the most promising ways to change that.”

In her current role, Mazzola conceptualizes strategies to spur systemic change, in addition to implementing them. She’s spent the last year creating the Intermediaries for Scale RFP, which seeks organizations that have a mission focused on increasing student success in education after high school and a track record of working across multiple colleges and universities, serving a significant number of low-income students and students of color.

“The Postsecondary Success team has spent nearly a decade thinking about solutions and innovations.  Now, they’re ready to scale them,” said Mazzola.

Mazzola called the RFP process “rigorous” and “grueling,” but also incredibly insightful. She said the organization has learned that the set of schools working to create the changes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was looking for was more expansive than they ever could have imagined.

“First off, we thought there’d be about 100 organizations that could apply,” said Mazzola. “More than two hundred applied – so that universe is twice as large as what we had envisioned.” She said that insight, and the insight different institutions gleaned from the process, will benefit everyone.

Ultimately, Mazzola said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s goals are audacious, and the biggest she knows of. That’s precisely what motivates her to go to the office and get to work every day.

“We have the potential to close the equity gap,” said Mazzola. “We don’t get everything right all the time, but we try, and when we try, we can course correct. We are really doing everything we can. Everyone is so passionate about creating equitable outcomes, it’s inspiring.”

Read more of the “People Behind Postsecondary Success” series: