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Interview with Zakiya Smith Ellis

Written by: Paul Basken
Published on: 28 May 2020

Source: New Jersey Department of Education

Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey secretary of higher education

Zakiya Smith Ellis is the secretary of higher education for the US state of New Jersey. She served previously as strategy director at the Lumina Foundation, the largest US foundation dedicated solely to higher education. Before that, she was a senior policy adviser at the White House and at the US Department of Education.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1985 and grew up for the most part in the Atlanta area.

How has that shaped you?
My mom is from South Carolina and my dad was from Ohio, with family lines from Georgia running back into the era of slavery. My dad was really into family history, and tracked our family history way back. As kids, we would go with him to the county archives. He was a software consultant for most of his career, but later in life decided to take the family history thing from a hobby to a more serious enterprise. So he went back to school, Georgia State University, in his mid-fifties, to get a master’s degree in cultural anthropology.

READ MORE: Interview with Gordon Harold

How far back in family history did he get?
It was family lore that we had an ancestor who came over on a slave ship from Africa. But he found that unlikely in that one case, as she is listed in the 1870 census as having been born in 1797, with her race indicated as “M” for mulatto. She may have been the result of a relationship between a slave owner and her mother, and was set free in his will just before the Civil War.

What set you on the path to education policy?
I wanted to be a lot of different things, and settled in high school on wanting to be a teacher. But that was also a time of school reform efforts nationally, and I became interested in not just teaching but the whole question of who decides all the policy stuff they were talking about on the news, such as whether we have uniforms in school or what time the school day starts. I was a really nerdy kid, did some research, found that that was called “education policy”, and that it was different from what teachers did. So I went to college trying to figure a way to do both.

What was studying at Vanderbilt University like for you?
I was a double major in secondary education and political science, trying to balance the policy with the teaching – the best of both worlds. But I ended up doing an internship in Washington DC after my senior year, and really loved that. I then got into Harvard University for a one-year master’s programme in education policy and took a class with Bridget Terry Long on college access. That really opened up this whole new world for me, about higher education, which I hadn’t even thought about before. I had been thinking about K-12 [primary and secondary school education] reform, but realised there’s stuff like financial aid and FAFSA [federal student aid] simplification. Professor Long recommended me for my first job in DC, at the US Education Department’s Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance, where I felt like I was doing what I love. There I met Robert Shireman [champion of an income-based student loan repayment system]. Later, he needed help for a short project in the Obama administration, and I already had an Education Department clearance. He was not planning to move from California. But it turned into a longer stay on both of our ends.

Have you encountered glass ceiling effects?
Atlanta is a really segregated city, and my high school had only one or two people who weren’t black. But I also grew up in a firmly middle-class neighbourhood and household. Vanderbilt was the first time I was really exposed to people who were, I guess, wealthy. One day in class we were having a conversation about social politics. Something about welfare came up, and one student said that most people who were on welfare were black, or something like that, and looked at me. That’s factually not true, and I realised he was from this fancy high school, and not that much smarter than anyone else. After that, I just felt a lot more confident in speaking up and speaking out, and that has stayed with me. Going to Harvard and then coming to DC, there are definitely lots of rooms where I’m the only person who will look like me. The experience at Vanderbilt instilled a kind of confidence in me [such that] I wouldn’t be afraid to say things and wouldn’t feel stupid.

What other lessons have stuck with you?
In the early days of the Obama administration, a mentor told me that if someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying, the problem is not with them. This taught me to be less self-righteous, less condescending, and to work harder to be more intentional about clarifying my ideas.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Pray more often. Exercise regularly and eat right. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and slowly count to 10 before responding when someone offends you. Also, create email folders.

What keeps you awake at night?
Right now, the Covid-19 pandemic and the thought that hundreds of thousands of students may not be able to finish their academic careers on time. And, of course, the tragedies that will be the many thousands of deaths and illnesses [occurring] because of the disease itself.

What do you do for fun?
Read, bake, and watch reality TV.