MBA Student Tackles Education System Issues

Vanessa Vaughn
Vanessa Vaughn

Vanessa Vaughn completed her bachelor's degree in supply chain management from The University of Texas at Austin. Before joining the Carey Business School as a 2019 GMBA Candidate, Vanessa worked as a Teach for America middle school teacher as well as Family Support Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge. During her time at Carey, Vanessa has participated in the Carey Business School Net Impact Chapter, Business of Social Innovation Fellowship, Business Volunteers Maryland GIVE Fellowship, and Education Pioneers Fellowship.

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My parents thought I was crazy for wanting to go back to business school to get my MBA. I had already “fallen off the wagon” once, turning down a full-time logistics position for Cardinal Health after graduating with a degree in supply chain management from the McCombs School of Business to pursue teaching. But, after four years of studying efficiency in my ivory tower, I discovered a much greater process management problem—the American education system. I couldn’t understand how the United States could be so inefficient and inequitable at educating children in low-income communities—allowing bottlenecks to develop that didn’t just affect a dollar value (although a 2009 study from Northeastern University estimated the cost to taxpayers of a single school dropout in the U.S. to be around $292,000 over a lifetime), but the futures of hundreds of thousands of children each year.

As a result, I joined Teach for America (TFA) in 2013 and was promptly sent to Baton Rouge, LA where I taught pre-algebra at a Title 1 school. It did not take me long to identify the myriad of factors (misaligned incentives, lack of TQM, and limited capacity) that lead to the buildup of disheartened, struggling learners in my 8th grade classroom. To illustrate how broken the system was, I was once teaching a unit on Pythagorean Theorem when a student raised her hand asking, “How do you know which one is the hypotenuse?” I reminded her that the hypotenuse is the longest side of a right triangle. She repeated her question, “So how do you know which one is the longest?” I looked down at the question she was pointing to—the triangle’s side lengths were labeled: 3cm, 4cm, 5cm.

As with any process management issue, I sought to fix the primary cause of the problem. Many of my students came to school each day more concerned with having power or food when they got home—or worse yet, wondering if they would get home safely at all. With these challenges, learning Pythagorean Theorem paled in comparison. So, after completing my commitment with TFA, I joined the staff of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Baton Rouge in the hopes of offering low-income families safe, stable, affordable homes. Still inefficiencies and barriers to equality persisted and I realized, if I wanted to fix the system at a higher level, I would need to be able to do more.

The moment I read “where business is taught with humanity in mind,” I knew the Carey Business School was where I wanted to pursue my MBA—and I was right. Through Carey I connected with an organization called Education Pioneers which recruits MBA’s from the top business schools in the nation to work in schools, education non-profits, and government agencies for their summer internships. After a four-stage application process, I was matched with the See Forever Foundation—a non-profit supporting the Maya Angelou alternative schools in D.C. This opportunity finally allowed me the chance to make a significant, lasting impact on at-risk students by helping to draft emergency legislation for defining “alternative education” in D.C. while also writing an extensive white paper studying alternative education programs all over the U.S. If accepted, legal precedent will exist to ensure the proper funding of the additional services and supports at-risk students need to graduate from high school with a diploma or its equivalent—a milestone that can intercept the school-to-prison pipeline and offer students the chance to fully utilize their true capacity.

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