Although dubbed a “warrior woman” by Oprah Winfrey, a staple to education reform and news media outlets alike, and profiled in the September 2010 release of the documentary Waiting for Superman, Former Chancellor of Washington, D.C. Public Schools and Cornell University alumna Michelle Rhee ’92 outlines her vision simply:
“I have two primary goals. One, I want to create a system of schools that give children the skills they need to become productive members of society. Two, I want every single school to be a compelling option for parents, where they would feel confident in sending their children to the public school in their neighborhood.”
Government (Without the Politics)
Rhee’s sense of the importance of service, civic and community responsibility are what initially attracted her to the Government major in the College of Arts and Sciences. According to her, “At that point I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do after college, but giving back to my community was something my parents instilled in me early on, and I have always believed government is primarily about service. I also liked the idea of management and found the workings of government fascinating. I didn’t consider going into education until I started teaching. Now, I think, if only we could do government without politics!”
Michelle Rhee, who lauds the value of an Arts and Sciences education as affording students the breadth of being able to “expose yourself to as many choices and fields as you can” and in the long term, equipping them with tools necessary to “become about opportunities –to dive deeper into what you choose, and then find a job you love where you can contribute something valuable in return,” was influenced most at Cornell by her interactions with students and professors. “I loved being around people who challenge me. I loved that it wasn’t just the professors at Cornell who were influencing us and setting a high bar, but the students who challenged me just as much.”
The Bee Eater
Among her various campus affiliations, Rhee recounts one of her top experiences as having been a peer mediator for Peer Educators for Human Relations (PEHR): “We went through a sensitivity training in order to become mediators, and through it I met people from all walks of life. We got to talk about cultural barriers and things that were important to me, and I learned a lot seeing how those issues were playing out in other people’s lives.”
Her penchant for addressing barriers and embracing challenges directly extended beyond Cornell to encompass how she managed a now infamous incident in her 1993, Baltimore, Maryland, Teach for America classroom, in which, to gain the interest and attention of a rowdy class of students, popped a bee into her mouth and gulped it down.
After working as an educator, Rhee went on to found The New Teacher Project, a non-profit organization that collaborates with school districts to recruit and train new, highly-qualified teachers before becoming superintendent of Washington, D.C. public schools for a three-year tenure.
“I fell in love with education when I started teaching, so really my interest became my career path.” To Rhee, the most rewarding aspect of her career is “knowing that I have a big contribution to make in ensuring that all kids here are offered an excellent education.”
“It’s a lot of work, but I love it.”
Following (Your) Gut
Rhee acknowledges that her career path has not been a “traditional” one and cautions others against perceiving that there is only one “right” way of pursuing a career in public service.
For others seeking to evoke institutional impact through their lines of work, Rhee’s advice is to, “first, follow your gut. I have talked to people who went in a direction that may have been great for them financially, but then they found they weren’t contributing in ways they wanted to, or making things measurably better for people who needed their skills.”
“Second, be unafraid. Don’t give up when it gets hard, because it will. You might even fall on your face once or twice! The most meaningful work takes much more persistence than I ever realized, so I would also say not to lose your hope and determination when you start to see the need for persistence in your own life.”