Program officer Scott Dalessandro has seen firsthand the impact of knowledge on people and communities all over the globe. From teaching English and training teachers in Bangladesh to working as an academic librarian and helping organizations improve access to information on HIV prevention in southern Africa, and finally, to strengthening institutional partnerships with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dalessandro’s career path appears, at first glance, to consist of many disparate experiences. But take a closer look and the pieces connect—as part of a larger life story grounded in exploration and expanding access to knowledge that transforms lives.
“Though my career started in libraries, my interest was never about the books, but about the people and the access to information that a library affords,” said Dalessandro. “The people, that access to information, and what that access can do are what I ultimately care about.”
His journey began after boarding a Greyhound bus in Maine, arriving in Michigan as a first-generation college student.
“There was quite a bit of chance involved in my success,” said Dalessandro of his admission to and completion from Hope College, a private liberal arts school he said he didn’t know anything about when he applied. “But I am lucky – I’m a white male who came from a supportive family. Other students who would have been placed in a similar situation may not have been as fortunate as I was.”
He started college with a clear vision of majoring in French (studying abroad appealed to him), picking up a second major in Spanish along the way. He did eventually study abroad—in both France and Spain—but still didn’t quite know how his education would translate into a job.
“The ongoing theme of my undergraduate experience was a curiosity about the world and taking what comes,” reflected Dalessandro. Each new experience—be it working in a library as a student worker, studying abroad, experiencing new cultural events, or learning about different career paths through his friends—exposed Dalessandro to new possibilities.
Among those possibilities, Dalessandro’s girlfriend and now-wife introduced him to the idea of embarking on a Peace Corps appointment upon graduation. As it happened, her mother was among the earliest Peace Corps volunteers, and her stories set in motion the couple’s application and admittance to The Peace Corps. After graduating from college, Dalessandro and his wife landed in Bangladesh, where Dalessandro used his linguistic skills to train teachers and teach English at a high school for girls.
“It became clear to me that education was not only about academics for my students, but also about economic opportunity and social factors, such as good marriage prospects,” said Dalessandro.
With time, Dalessandro grew frustrated with the inequities in access to education, despite largescale public efforts to make school free for girls in Bangladesh. For example, many teachers prioritized teaching through costly private coaching before and after school, rather than in the classroom. As a result, families that could not afford such tutoring were at a significant disadvantage despite free public education.
“You shouldn’t have to be born into a certain family in order to receive an education,” said Dalessandro.
When their Peace Corps appointment concluded, Dalessandro and his wife headed to Seattle for graduate school. With an eye toward public service and exploring how to expand access to information, Dalessandro earned a Master’s in Public Administration and Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Washington (UW). While there, he interned and worked with the International Labour Organization, worked as a staff assistant at the UW Library System, and discovered various career paths outside of libraries that sparked his interest, particularly in international development.
His love for travel didn’t cease after the Peace Corps. After graduating from UW, Dalessandro worked for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs, eventually moving to South Africa to help improve information flows regarding HIV prevention within and across several countries in the region. Many of the issues he worked on related to people, processes, and technology—skills that eventually brought him to the Institutional Partnerships team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“A lot of what I do at the foundation is about how we partner with institutions that are already transforming, taking steps to expand access to that experience,” Dalessandro said. He pointed to the University of Central Florida (UCF) as a prime example. “UCF has been working with faculty and looking at pedagogy, asking the question: how do you teach effectively online? How do you teach to improve equity, in a way that truly serves all students?”
He also noted Fayetteville State University (FSU) in North Carolina as another institution using tech to reach more students, including those in rural parts of the state. As of September 2018, FSU has reached an agreement with four community colleges to allow graduates to complete an online bachelor’s degree at FSU at a total cost of no more than $10,000, with more agreements in development.
Dalessandro is also committed to connecting colleges and universities to improve education through collaboration. Through the Institutional Partnerships team, Dalessandro has worked to put together the Frontier Set—a group of 29 institutions and two state systems working together to significantly increase student access and success, and eliminate racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in college attainment. “If all of these campuses work together collectively, there’s potential to make impact in a huge way,” said Dalessandro.
Dalessandro said he savors visiting partner campuses to learn about their progress and challenges, also absorbing the impact of each school in relation to its broader community.
“It’s interesting and rewarding to live and work where you’re serving, and to see the impact of your work up close,” said Dalessandro, about living and working domestically. He remains committed to expanding access to information and advocating for those who have been traditionally underserved.
“Education can be hugely effective for improving lives, with tremendous benefits to students, families, and communities.”