In spring 2017, Deputy Director Suzanne Walsh waited to deliver the commencement address at Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina. The person introducing her included the usual listing of impressive accomplishments: a bachelor’s degree in social work, a law degree and a master’s degree, her current work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, previous work at Lumina Foundation and The Heinz Endowments, membership in the World Economic Forum’s Future of the University group, and more.
Then it was Walsh’s turn at the podium.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is what’s called an asset-based biography,” said Walsh. “And the thing about an asset-based biography is it’s literally a collection of the best, most prestigious things you’ve accomplished. Let me give you an alternative biography.”
She then listed a number of her failures, such as failing out of Mount Holyoke College in the middle of her sophomore year because of low grades—her .75 GPA just wasn’t cutting it, so she was told to take a year off—and being fired from a job.
“It was to show that none of us are perfect,” said Walsh. It’s a theme she seeks to highlight often in her work at the foundation.
As the child of two first-generation college students who became academics, Walsh moved around the world while her parents taught at different universities. When pondering her future, she knew she “wanted to save the world” in some way, and that desire evolved into a dream of becoming an FBI profiler.
For that reason, Walsh studied psychology during her first year at Mount Holyoke, but she didn’t earn high enough grades to continue.
“I’m a great learner, but not a great student. I could apply what I had learned, but not regurgitate it,” said Walsh.
So, she took a step back. Her parents encouraged her to find her academic footing at Hudson Valley Community College, where her father taught.
“I never felt unsupported,” said Walsh. “My parents encouraged me to take courses that appealed to me, and trusted that I would find my path. It informs my management style to this day.”
Walsh discovered she had a natural affinity for social work and liked that it directly related to creating a better world. Walsh ended up staying at Hudson Valley and earning an associate’s degree in human services before transferring to Cornell University to earn a bachelor’s degree in social work.
“All of these things became a much better fit for me. It became about applying what I had learned, and finding an academic home that reinforced and allowed me to get smarter about the way my brain worked,” said Walsh.
A master’s degree in social work and a Juris Doctor followed. Soon, Walsh was representing foster children in Oklahoma as a tribal court attorney. Her life took another turn a few years later when she moved to Ohio to marry her now-husband. Fortunately, she happened to meet and instantly connect with a woman who was setting up the Workforce and Economic Development Division for Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. The meeting inspired Walsh’s ultimate transition to higher education, where she dove into the economic development and workforce training subject matter with fervor. Part of her motivation was to apply lessons from the mistakes she herself had made during her journey through higher education. According to Walsh, when one finds a topic about which she can be passionate and an educational setting that matches her style and ambition, the sky is the limit. This new trajectory led to her later working at The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and then the Lumina Foundation in Indiana.
Eight years ago, Walsh moved to Seattle to accept a position at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to spearhead a number of initiatives aimed at encouraging collaboration among postsecondary institutions. These initiatives aim to reduce gaps in the attainment of postsecondary degrees by promoting enhanced planning and student advising, increasing use of digital learning tools to address student needs, and redesigning remedial education. The opportunity calls upon Walsh’s social work background, her legal skills, and her own experiences in higher ed.
At the foundation, Walsh says one main goal is to shift the conversation so that all students have access to education beyond high school. However, it’s also essential to recognize both that the student population is changing and that higher education was created for one type of student. That student was likely someone who could perform well in the classroom and had an existing support system, said Walsh.
Reflecting on higher education in general and her own path, Walsh thinks often about the critical need for education to meet students where they are. “My big message regarding higher education is that you have to find the right environment for what you want to accomplish and your style of thinking,” said Walsh. “Then, you can help save the world.”
“We shouldn’t be asking, ‘Is this student ready for higher education?’” continued Walsh. “We should be asking, ‘Is higher education ready for this student?’ So we are trying to help institutions realize that to help more people like my parents— first-generation students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students of color—these enterprises have to adjust. As with the glowing introduction that preceded my commencement address at JCSU, we need higher ed to have an asset-based approach to working with today’s students.”
As part of that goal, Walsh is most proud of her team’s work on the Frontier Set, which built on Completion by Design (CBD), an initiative to increase student success and completion by eliminating the barriers that stop students from reaching graduation. CBD grew out of the vision that student performance and completion outcomes could be improved most effectively through collaboration. The initiative helped community college faculty, staff, administrators, and students work together to create integrated policies, practices, processes, and culture that better support students.
Impressively, all of the CBD institutions have already met all five of their target goals for 2019. CBD colleges and universities boosted their completion rates eight percentage points over six years, versus an increase of just one percentage point for higher ed overall during the same period. Walsh is encouraged by these results, which push her forward in setting the Postsecondary Success Team’s vision and supporting the foundation’s team of program officers.
What’s more, Walsh can personally relate to the Postsecondary Success Team’s approach that takes into account the challenges that occur in most people’s lives—whether inside or outside of the classroom—and creates support systems that help them get back on their feet they can eventually succeed. It’s for the same reason that she offers encouragement to others like her who experienced obstacles along the way—sharing, for example, a recent conversation with students at the University of Central Florida.
“I said, ‘I was kicked out of Mount Holyoke; I was fired from a job,’ and there were those who looked really terrified, and I said ‘No, no, no, it all works out,’” Walsh recalled. “And when I saw those students a few months later, they thanked me. Because I think that there’s a presumption that if you work here, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that you took a clearly defined path through education, everyone nailed it, A-plus. And that’s just not everyone’s story.”