Before working for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Jamey Rorison was a middle school teacher. It was a high-stress job for a recent college graduate that involved meeting brilliant students from all backgrounds, feeding a lifelong passion for helping others learn.
It was also a job that highlighted the challenges inherent in closing the achievement gap.
In those early years, Rorison taught students who were largely above grade level and expressed a desire to go to college. But sadly, the bright future they imagined often eluded them.
“Once my students got to high school, many them would end up not applying to college,” said Rorison. “It drew me to start thinking more critically about college access. Was it because these students were low income? Was it because they came from under-represented minority groups?”
They were questions Rorison would continue to ponder, questions informed by his own past as a low-income student growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
“My mom didn’t go to college, but it was clear to me that my mom wanted me and my sister to go,” said Rorison. A stellar academic performance was an expectation. If Rorison brought home anything less than an A, he knew he’d encounter disappointment at home.
“Having a mom who was confident in my academic ability has pushed me to always want to do my best and reach my full potential,” said Rorison. At his inner city high school, he was one of the smartest students in the class, and when it came to college, he chose to aim high.
“I wanted to get into the most prestigious school I could that wasn’t too far from home,” said Rorison.
He ended up at the University of Pennsylvania. The experience provided a stark contrast to his high school years.
While Rorison had graduated from a predominantly black high school, the University of Pennsylvania’s campus population was predominately white. And while Rorison was never food insecure, his roommates would often eat out or go on trips to Atlantic City, something Rorison couldn’t afford with his student job.
“It was the first time in my life where I was surrounded by mostly affluent people,” said Rorison. At the same time, while experiencing culture shock to a large degree, Rorison was awestruck by his classmates from different countries and upbringings that brought a diversity of viewpoints and opinions to his classes and everyday conversations, in addition to the rigor of his academic experience.
After graduating, Rorison started his job teaching at a middle school in Maryland, diving headfirst into the physically and emotionally demanding role. After five years as a teacher, Rorison was drawn to a job writing SAT prep curriculum, which would allow him to shorten his commute while trying something new. That first step toward change prompted a large-scale re-shaping of his career, starting with returning to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school.
Rorison began with the pursuit of a master’s degree in higher education. After receiving his degree in 2009, he wasn’t done – Rorison continued on to earn his Ph.D. His pursuit of a doctoral degree in education was something he had vaguely imagined as an exciting potential future in his childhood. To make it a reality was fulfilling in a way that only made Rorison want to help students like him in a bigger way.
“In graduate school, I became interested in the roles that institutions and policymakers play,” said Rorison. “I grew up as a student thinking if something bad happened, it was my fault, because I did something poorly. That’s how many first-generation students think. It highlights systemic issues that put certain students at a disadvantage.”
Professionally, Rorison sought out a path that would allow him to go to the front lines to address these systemic issues.
From the University of Pennsylvania, Rorison worked at the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), before eventually finding his way to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In his current role on the Data/Measurement, Learning, and Evaluation team, Rorison focuses on the Postsecondary Success team’s data portfolio, works with the foundation’s P-16 Community Investment Team, and leads foundation’s support of the Postsecondary Value Commission.
“I truly believe the Value Commission has the potential to change the game in postsecondary education, to reorient the field to improve the ways we serve students,” said Rorison. “Down the road, I hope we’re going to see higher ed transform itself in ways that make real progress toward longstanding equity goals. By reorienting around measures of value, postsecondary education can offer more people the opportunity to better their personal circumstance and reap the rewards personally and for society as a whole.”
It’s ideal work for a former K-12 teacher who understands the difficulties teachers and first-generation college students face firsthand.
“Quite frankly, I’m thrilled and honored to do this,” said Rorison. “There are so many people at the foundation who have different professional and personal backgrounds. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to be in a place where I can connect on a personal level with my colleagues while making an impact. The work is fast-paced but I feel inspired by it daily, doing work alongside people whom I enjoy learning with and from.”
Read more of the “People Behind Postsecondary Success” series:
- Art Seavey, Senior Program Officer
- Sarah Bauder, Senior Program Officer
- Rahim Rajan, Senior Program Officer
- Suzanne Walsh, Deputy Director
- Nate Simpson, Program Officer
- Scott Dalessandro, Program Officer
- Natasha Fedo, Senior Portfolio Officer
- Francesca Mazzola, Program Officer
- Izmira Santiago-Mikel, Associate Program Officer