Born in Ukraine under the crumbling Soviet Union’s governance, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Senior Portfolio Officer for Postsecondary Success Natasha Fedo grew up taking education for granted. With parents who were geology researchers for the government, and a state-sponsored school system that resulted in free education through college and graduate school, she assumed she’d attend college, from day one.
“If you studied enough, and if you really wanted to get a postsecondary degree, it was not a matter of finances, it was a matter of getting into a university,” recalled Fedo. “If you studied hard enough, you could get in.”
Yet, as she grew older, the system held in place for so long began to splinter. The Soviet Union’s future grew uncertain, and so did the future of Fedo’s parents’ jobs. In the chaos of a changing government system and economy, one of the few things Fedo and her parents remained certain about was the necessity of a solid education.
Fedo began a quest in her high school years for the best education she could receive, applying to various scholarships and exchange student opportunities. During those post-communism years, one opportunity she applied for–to be a Rotary Club exchange student for her senior year of high school–proved to be a move that would shape the rest of her life.
Through the Rotary Club, Fedo got the opportunity to attend high school in Minnesota. Landing in Minnesota with knowledge of English purely learned in her Russian classroom, she quickly overcame the fluency barrier and observed her new surroundings with keen eyes.
“It was the first time I really saw income disparity on a broad scale, and the first time I realized that it’s not about just knowing what you want to do, it’s about something more: resources,” said Fedo.
At the close of her year in Minnesota, Fedo realized a similar divide was taking root in her home country.
“Some friends weren’t able to go to college, and some were,” said Fedo of her childhood friends. “By the time I was college age, it did matter how much money I had.”
The chaos and corruption in her home country pushed Fedo to consider pursuing higher education in the US. “It forced me to think about where I really wanted to continue my education,” she said.
Fedo eventually applied to and was accepted at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. With a mix of financial aid and scholarship opportunities, she decided to attend, sight unseen. She studied business and finance, eventually doing an internship at a real estate investment firm in Seattle, which led to job shortly after graduation. The whole time though, she felt something was missing.
“I wanted to do work that was more in the public’s interest,” Fedo said. “I just never really connected to that world – the world of real estate finance. My heart was never really in it, that way.”
Fedo ended up finding that purpose at BERK Consulting, a Seattle public policy consulting firm, where she worked with public and nonprofit organizations on complex issues across a range of policy areas, from municipal finance to economic development to education. She knew she’d found something that fed that hunger for making a difference.
“Education is a driver of being able to achieve things you want to achieve,” said Fedo. “That’s a driver for me – if you want to do something, you should be able to have that opportunity, to set yourself up for success.”
Her first education-related project involved creating a strategic and action plan around Pre-K–grade three alignment between the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools. She was struck, as someone with pre-school initially provided by her government back home, with the state of pre-school education in Seattle. With BERK and the City of Seattle, she worked on a landmark universal pre-K project to help families pay for pre-school on a sliding scale. She was fascinated by solving existing issues related to access, specifically for families with low to moderate household incomes. Now in its fourth year, the program was recently ranked as the highest quality among Pre-K programs in 40 large U.S. cities in a study from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in partnership with nonprofit policy advocacy group CityHealth.
“There is so much research on how quality early learning can increase kids’ chances for future success in life, yet not that much in terms of investment into this critical element of the educational continuum,” said Fedo. “And while people in the lowest income percentiles can have access to Head Start, and wealthier people can pay out of pocket, it’s the people that are in the low- to mid-range that don’t have as many quality choices and are hit the hardest in terms of costs.”
Fedo’s urge to make a bigger difference eventually made her a natural fit for The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success team, which she joined in 2016. In her role, Fedo works with the team on their investment portfolio, managing the organization’s investment approach.
Today, Fedo says she’s most excited about the RFP focused on finding intermediaries for scale, and has been encouraged by the positive feedback from people in the field of higher education.
“What we’re trying to do is create system change,” said Fedo. “Right now, the system isn’t set up to make sure all students are successful in getting the resources they need to achieve their goals. Change is possible – we’re trying to create change at scale.”
Fedo also says she’s inspired by colleges and universities in the Frontier Set. “These institutions are pushing in so many different directions, in terms of looking to innovate,” said Fedo. “And they’re succeeding. Some are starting to close the equity gaps, proving that it’s possible to create systems change that benefits the low-income, first-generation, and students of color.”
Ultimately, Fedo is grateful for all of the opportunities she received – and earned, in pursuing higher education.
She’s working to increase access to educational opportunities for all students, so that more might have a chance at the success she’s experienced.