Growing up in Texas as the child of immigrants who didn’t attend college, Rahim Rajan remembers vividly the challenges that he and his siblings faced.
“My older siblings made a lot of the classic mistakes,” said Rajan. “They didn’t know they could get financial aid, that they could get a Pell Grant, that they could get scholarships.” His siblings’ journeys through higher education often involved starting in community college and looking to transfer, working part-time jobs, and taking longer than four years to earn their degree.
So, in addition to learning from his older siblings, Rajan looked to his high school friends and classmates, many of whom were the children of college professors at a nearby university, to figure out how to get to and through college.
“I was literally following what a lot of my friends were doing, in terms of, ‘When are you taking the PSAT? When are you applying to colleges? What does that mean? How do you select where you want to go?’” said Rajan.
His strategy worked and Rajan was accepted to Boston University with a generous scholarship. However, unlike many of his classmates, he said goodbye to his parents in Texas and traveled to Massachusetts alone, suitcase in hand.
As a first-generation college student, an early revelation was discovering that the dorms would close for the Thanksgiving holiday—threatening to leave Rajan without a place to stay for part of November.
“It had never even dawned on me that the dorms would close,” said Rajan. “So, a friend who lived close to Boston invited me to Thanksgiving. What an amazing thing for a friend to do, but also, it just speaks to the mindset of a student who is a first-generation college student or an immigrant.”
Fortunately, Rajan’s hard work paid off. After two years, strong relationships with advisors and a growing thirst for intellectual challenges pushed him to transfer to the University of Chicago. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree there, Rajan went on to receive a master’s degree from Cambridge University, focusing on philosophy and Middle Eastern Studies, with the initial intent of going into academia.
During his time at Cambridge, Rajan’s goals evolved as he realized he didn’t want to solely focus on a life of research and teaching. Instead, he moved to New York, landing a job at a very young nonprofit startup created by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, JSTOR. JSTOR uses technology to make academic journal articles, books, and primary sources accessible to students and scholars around the globe. For Rajan, it was the perfect mix of his liberal arts background, his international background, and his desire to expand educational opportunities to others.
“I think of education as the most critical way for us to achieve our true potential,” said Rajan. “And I’ve seen it firsthand in my family, what that opportunity afforded. My parents came to this country on the premise of educating their children—that’s really the reason why my parents moved halfway around the world.”
At JSTOR, Rajan helped design a program to ensure universities, museums, and libraries in the developing world could have affordable access to this immense digital archive, which proved to be a game changer for students and faculty around the world.
It was also at JSTOR that Rajan saw firsthand the potential of technology to expand access to education and scientific research, and began thinking about how to build a learning experience that would improve education outcomes. In 2011, Rajan accepted the opportunity to do just that, as a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, moving his family from New York City to Seattle.
Rajan’s own experience as a first-generation college students from an immigrant family continues to motivate his everyday work. His work explores different models and evidence-based approaches to education, specifically the use of digital learning and proven reforms to math and English remediation to help students from nontraditional backgrounds succeed in higher education.
Rajan and his team at the foundation are helping colleges and universities adopt technologies that provide students with an individualized and adaptive learning experience that allows them to strengthen their weakest points of study, empowering them to master remedial classes and excel in subject areas they had never considered their strong suit. Rajan is also working with other national funders on an exciting initiative called Strong Start to Finish – a multi-year initiative to scale proven evidence-based reforms to enable more students to succeed in postsecondary and avoid harmful, unproductive remediation.
“It’s almost like giving these students a trampoline, and giving students a better learning experience with rich feedback so they can accelerate along their path to a degree or credential,” said Rajan.
Digital learning can help students gain skills at a lower cost, and attain a credential at a faster rate. For students with families, outside jobs, or an onslaught of extracurriculars, hybrid and online courses allow them the flexibility to gain a skill set while attending to other facets of their busy lives. In fact, the majority—62 percent—of today’s college students work, 26 percent of whom work full-time.
Rajan is excited that digital learning gives today’s college students, many of whom balance their studies alongside competing commitments like work and family, “the ability to manage their education in the midst of the challenging life that they lead. For them it’s not an option that they can stop working and focus on school 100 percent.”
When Rajan looks ahead, he thinks to the new challenges and opportunities that rapid advances in automation will bring—and how digital learning can to help low-income and first-generation college students keep up and succeed to stay ahead of those changes.
“Automation is going to happen sooner than we think, and it’s going to have implications for a lot of the skilled jobs that we see out there,” said Rajan. “As a nation, how are we going to prepare our students of today, adults of today, to develop new skills to meet the demands of tomorrow’s economy?”
Working in digital learning and developmental education —and more recently as a father—Rajan is acutely aware of the skills, critical thinking, and opportunities that education beyond high school makes possible. And he uses his own experiences as motivation to help others gain access to such opportunities.
“Those of us who do have these opportunities have a responsibility,” said Rajan. “I want to extend those opportunities to as many others as I can.”