The public schools Rachel Gwaltney attended in her hometown of Acton, Massachusetts, prepared her well to enter top-ranked Johns Hopkins University, where she earned an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree in liberal arts. While in graduate school she worked at a national education support organization, leading a team of writers to develop curriculum units for elementary and middle schools. As part of this work she visited schools from East Orange, New Jersey, to Indian reservations in New Mexico. The disparities she observed in educational opportunities troubled her, especially when compared to her own.
“I recognized the advantages that I had where I grew up and saw the tremendous challenges faced by students attending schools in impoverished areas,” says Gwaltney. “I wanted to help level the playing field.”
That urge to level the playing field has led Gwaltney to a career focused on improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, including eight years at Higher Achievement, a national academic enrichment program based in Washington, DC, where she developed curricula and oversaw programs. She currently conducts research for Data Quality Campaign, a national advocacy organization that helps states use student data effectively, and chairs the board of Many Languages One Voice, a DC nonprofit that supports grassroots health and education initiatives for those with limited English language proficiency.
“I’m drawn to community-based advocacy,” says Gwaltney, “but I didn’t want to do my work in isolation. I wanted to learn more about theory and how all the bits and pieces fit into a bigger picture.” To do that, Gwaltney enrolled in Northwestern University School of Professional Studies’s Master of Arts in Public Policy and Administration online program.
“The DC area has lots of public policy programs,” says Gwaltney, “but Northwestern’s program offered more. It’s about real-world applications of theory, about understanding how disparate elements of public policy intersect across different issues.” The online program, which Gwaltney began in 2013, allows her to continue to work while she learns. It also gives her the opportunity to connect with classmates from around the world, working in fields that include government, medicine and law enforcement. “The range of experience people bring to the program makes for really rich discussions,” says Gwaltney.
“Doing this program mid-career has been good for me,” she adds. “For me the real value is the opportunity to place my community-based experiences within the larger framework of public policy. I can apply these lessons to what I’ve done and to what I hope to do.”