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Profile: Onetime Obama Staffer Now Steers Higher Ed in NJ

Georgia native focuses on developing ‘first-class, best-in-the-nation, free community college plan’ for New Jersey

Zakiya Smith Ellis
Zakiya Smith Ellis

Who: Zakiya Smith Ellis

Age: 33

Family: Married

Hometown: Atlanta, GA. She now lives in Medford, New Jersey

Her new title: New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education

How she got here: Smith Ellis has known she wanted to work on education policy ever since high school. “I was super nerdy and focused, and I wanted to be a teacher, but I realized that there were so many things that impact the day to day educational pathway that were not in the control of the instructor,” she said. “Things like who controls the textbooks and what time class starts. That's something else, that's the policy.”

She took her dream of working in education to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee where she graduated with a double major in secondary education and political science. While in college, she worked for Teach for America in Houston, Los Angeles, and Nashville. She went on to earn a master’s degree in education policy and management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania.

In Obama administration: Post-college, Smith Ellis worked in Boston for GEAR UP, a program that tries to foster high expectations in young people, get them to stay in school, study hard, and go to college. She then held an internship on Capitol Hill with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. From there, as she puts it, Smith Ellis “happened into the Obama administration” after volunteering for the presidential campaign in Virginia and working temporarily in the Department of Education.

During her time in the Obama administration, Smith Ellis served as Director of Government Relations for the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, where she wrote reports on financial advising and college affordability for low- and moderate- income families. Eventually, she became a senior advisor for Education at the White House Domestic Policy Council, where she researched, developed, and promoted President Barack Obama's higher education policies.

Smith Ellis made the switch to philanthropy in 2013 to lead the Lumina Foundation, a private organization focused on providing higher education grants for students from all backgrounds. There, she worked to “bring all of the pieces together around affordability and federal policy work.”

As luck would have it: Smith Ellis says she worked relentlessly to prove herself capable of taking on high level advisory positions in the White House and at Lumina but that her success is due in part to luck and opportunity.

“I worked hard and did the best job I could but that's not to say that there weren’t other people also working hard ... there's a little bit of luck involved but hard work does pay off...I have proven myself because I was given the opportunity.”

Family memories: Smith Ellis says she owes much of her perspective on college affordability and opportunity to her late father, Wayman Roger Smith. As the “family historian,” he shared photographs and memories of their family history in Georgia and taught Smith Ellis to value where she came from.

“He had pictures of people who were slaves and knew where the plantations were,” she recalled. “I know that for so many people, education can be a ladder. Being able to have something that you can take with you — a degree or credential or apprenticeship — is very empowering. For so long, some people have not had that ability, so I think, ‘how can I use my work to expand those opportunities for people today?’”

Smith Ellis says she sees education as a way to empower individuals to shape their lives in a positive way and contribute meaningfully to their communities.

“There were so many of my [high school] classmates that were talented and really skilled who didn’t end up going to college ... they weren’t afforded the same chances as I was, they didn’t have parents who went to college,” she said. “When you’re provided with the tools to help understand the world around you and craft your own destiny, that's very powerful.”

Free community college: Smith Ellis said what drew her to New Jersey was the chance to help build a “first-class, best-in-the-nation, free community college plan,” something Gov. Phil Murphy has been promoting ever since he was on the campaign trail.

“I saw the light several years ago and I believe there’s a movement around this,” Smith Ellis said. Though the specifics still need to be worked out, she explained the rough plan is to “start with a conversation about what we're doing well as a state and look at what we need to improve upon and what resources we have and how we need to allocate those resources to meet our goals.”

Smith Ellis has run into some trouble selling the governor’s proposal to legislators but she remains optimistic that she can get it done.

“People can think it’s just a talking point, but I was convinced why we should do this while I was in the Obama administration,” she said. “Here in New Jersey, we have fantastic community colleges and we've got enough here in terms of existing financial aid to really be a premier program.”

Gardening in Garden State: Though her ambition and work ethic keep her focused on education policy, Smith Ellis uses the gaps in her schedule to explore life in her new home state. She said she knew little about New Jersey before meeting people associated with the Murphy team but that she’s quickly adjusting to the unique ways of the state.

In Washington, D.C., she regularly invited neighbors and coworkers over for homecooked Sunday dinners and holiday meals and she said she is eager to recreate that pattern in her new town of Medford.

“In New Jersey I've been really into not letting things die in my garden,” she said “I have successfully had a rosebush — it's been very hot, and rabbits have been trying to eat it, but I’m keeping it going. It’s so funny to me that I'm gardening in the Garden State.”

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