When Rae Shih (L’17) entered college at Northwestern University, it was international policy issues, not domestic ones, which initially captured her attention and imagination. Eager to start building toward a future in international development, she seized the opportunity in the summer after her freshmen year to do a study abroad program in Uganda, through which she worked for a community-based, micro-credit non-profit organization, providing loans to rural women. The experience was significant and affecting, opening her eyes to the enormous challenges of fostering change, especially within a remote agricultural village in the developing world.
As Rae continued to evaluate how best to deploy her interests, abilities, and experience, she came to realize that her commitment to producing positive, community-based change might be better advanced at home, in the realm of education policy. After her junior year, Rae got an internship with the DC Public Schools, at the time when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor. Rae worked specifically in the Office of Out-of-School Time, assisting with summer school operations. “It was incredibly gratifying seeing students I helped that summer with credit recovery graduate in August,” Rae recounts. “Working at an intense, mission-driven organization focused on students made me want to come back.”
But to really excel in affecting education policy, Rae understood that she needed classroom experience. So she took the opportunity, after finishing her undergraduate degree, to work for Teach for America (TFA) as a high school math teacher, choosing specifically to go to New Orleans, which, as the post-Katrina rebuilding progressed, promised to be a hub for education reform. “I am still in contact with some of my former students, to whom I taught Algebra II and Pre-Calculus,” Rae reports. “They’re now in college applying for summer jobs and deciding what they want to major in. One is minoring in math!”
The classroom experience only highlighted all the more clearly the systemic problems faced by urban school districts, and compelled Rae to seek out more opportunities to immerse herself on the policy side. She spent the summer between her first and second year of TFA interning at StudentsFirst, an education reform organization in Sacramento also founded by Michelle Rhee, and then joined the organization full-time as a Policy Analyst after her TFA commitment ended in 2012. There, she gained exposure to a wide range of hot-button issues, including charter school establishment and accountability, the Common Core, and equitable access to effective teachers. But Rae is particularly proud of the work she did on teacher training programs: “My biggest accomplishment was drafting legislation, testifying, and seeing two bills pass in Indiana in 2013 and 2014 holding teacher preparation programs accountable for the effectiveness of their graduates. Quality teacher pipelines are incredibly critical to student achievement.”
Seeing the way in which so much of education policy is determined by legislation, Rae chose to advance her academic credentials by going to law school, and chose Penn “because it has a strong public interest program and education pro bono opportunities,” as well as “some of the best employment opportunities of all the law schools.” During her first term at Penn Law, Rae made her curriculum more policy-specific by earning admission to the Master in Public Policy program with the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where she was awarded the Zuckerman Fellowship to pursue a concurrent JD/MPP degree.
But before starting the Harvard portion of her graduate education, Rae received funding from the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative to spend this past summer as intern in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC. It was an opportunity that allowed her to add federal government regulatory experience to the classroom, district-level, and state-level experiences she has had already. At OCR, she did legal research on topics such as the nature of the legal relationship between students and universities, and the application of civil rights laws to schools controlled by Native American tribes. Rae summed up her experience this way: “It was a great way to see how the federal regulatory process works, and what levers are available at this level to incentivize states to improve student outcomes.”
Outside of the realm of education policy, Rae’s other main passion is in athletic competition and coaching—specifically, CrossFit and weightlifting. She started doing CrossFit workouts as an undergrad at Northwestern and moved on to coaching CrossFit at a gym in New Orleans while working as TFA teacher. She went on to establish a powerlifting program there, applying the pedagogical and organizational skills from her classroom experience. “Being a teacher, and learning about how to break down exercises, pace out a lesson, and stay patient, helped me be a better coach,” she says. Rae represented CrossFit NOLA on their Regional teams in 2011 and 2012, but then after moving to California to work for StudentsFirst, switched to competing in weightlifting, and went to the American Open and National Championships in 2013 and 2014. Although the demands of law school don’t allow time for coaching, Rae still competes in weightlifting, and last year set the Pennsylvania state record in the women’s clean and jerk category.
After she graduates from the JD/MPP program, Rae hopes to gain a few years of litigation experience for a private firm before going back to the public sector, working either “at a reform-minded state department of education,” or a large school district. “I think that’s the best intersection of policy-setting and implementation in terms of driving student outcomes.” But she hasn’t ruled out a return to working at the federal level of education policy. As Rae is quick to note, though, that “depends on the administration in charge!”