Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

Born in Queens, Program Officer Nazeema Alli learned from the example set by her parents: that hard work, ingenuity, and a bit of luck can lead to intergenerational economic mobility. It’s an example she’s never taken for granted.

Her father was born in Guyana to a sugarcane farming family, while her mother, also born in Guyana, came from a family of rice farmers.

“My parents grew up without indoor plumbing, electricity and little formal education,” said Alli. “My father dropped out of school at the age of 14 to make ends meet – teaching himself to drive and speak multiple languages to earn income. He eventually moved to the U.S. at 17. Despite not having a formal education, he was very determined. He grew up more quickly than a child should have to.”

Upon arriving in the U.S., Alli’s father found work at a family-owned pet supply manufacturing business. He and his wife made a home for themselves within a Guyanese community in Queens. After Alli and her sister were born, he continued to work his way up at the company, becoming a partner and then eventually owning the business.

“My parents were able to elevate our family out of a hard situation through a lot of ingenuity and motivation,” said Alli. These lessons would stick with her – yet, her parents wanted more for Alli and her sister. They wanted her to add a quality education to the equation; with that, they could rest assured that Alli and her sister would be able to take care of themselves.

With their business success and eye toward expanding opportunities for their children, the Allis moved to Long Island.

“My parents made a lot of sacrifices to expand our access to opportunity. They set college as a clear north star, although none of us were sure what that really entailed,” said Alli. “After we moved, our paths began to diverge from many of the other folks we knew in our community in Queens.”

The move involved Alli reckoning with her cultural identity in new ways.

“I was in a new neighborhood, which included other first-generation immigrant families, but most were European,” said Alli. “My sister and I were some of the few brown kids in the neighborhood. It was then I realized I was considered ‘outside of the norm’.”

During that formative period, Alli worked hard in school all while never really feeling like she fit in.

“Oftentimes, for first-generation folks who live in communities where they are the minority, they may feel like they are, on one hand, struggling to fit in with the dominant mainstream culture, and on another hand not brown enough,” said Alli. “I found myself waffling during that time – thinking should I even go to college? I was worried it would further alienate me from my community.”

With little knowledge of the college search process, it seemed easier to avoid applying. However, during Alli’s junior year of high school, she had a teacher who encouraged her to apply.

“He mentioned that he was excited his son had recently been accepted to the University of Michigan and thought I might have shot at getting in,” said Alli. Based on his advice, she decided to apply and was ultimately accepted.

Alli spent her first few years at Michigan with access to an advising support group geared toward first-generation students, and used that resource to get into the undergraduate business program. Once there, she was struck by the easy access to resources that resulted in entry to a number of high-profile positions and jobs – ultimately leading her to Washington state to work for Microsoft.

In the time Alli was at Microsoft, she pondered why opportunities worked out for her, and not others like her who were equally capable.

“Education completely changed my life,” said Alli. “Education was a bridge to opportunity, but I found it problematic that not everyone can access it.”

That curiosity and motivation to eliminate inequities in the current education system drove her to earn a master’s degree from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and eventually, push for progress at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Today, Alli merges the skills she learned in undergraduate and graduate school, and on the job as a product manager for Microsoft in her role as a program officer. She works with other program officers to build normative practices around how the foundation invests in solutions to close equity gaps across K-12 and postsecondary education.

“I’m on a new team at the foundation that’s investing to learn and codify how we can better lead with an equity lens when investing the development, adaptation, and scaling of solutions,” said Alli. “It’s something the foundation has been going deeper on: what do we do from an equity perspective as we build initiatives?”

She’s especially excited by the work’s potential for accelerating opportunities for students to find belonging, economic opportunity and self-actualization, in a world that too often leaves some students behind – simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

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