Zaid Abuhouran is headed for the White House – but not by way of a political campaign. Starting in July he will be on a six-month rotation with the White House’s Domestic Policy Council in the education office, working with President Obama’s team of close advisors on U.S. educational issues.
This plum assignment is part of Zaid’s internship with the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) program, a highly competitive two-year training and development opportunity with the federal government. The prestigious program, launched in 1977, seeks “to attract to federal service outstanding citizen-scholars from a variety of academic disciplines and career paths who have a clear interest in, and commitment to, excellence in the leadership and management of public policies and programs,” according to the program’s website.
In a typical year, there might be 12,000 applications submitted by U.S. citizens who are in graduate school or have recently obtained a graduate degree to fill 650 to 700 fellowship slots. Semifinalists go through testing, in-person interviews and other rigorous steps to become eligible for a paid internship-style position in a government agency. Rotations usually last four to six months, and agencies may hire fellows permanently following the two-year program.
Zaid was hired by the U.S. Department of Education to work in its Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to improve under-performing schools through the federal School Improvement Grants program.
“Since starting work at the Department, I also have started working on President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program through the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education to improve educational and life outcomes for young men of color,” he said.
“In the coming months I will be transitioning from managing the School Improvement Grants for several states to managing all federal K-12 programs for Nevada and my home state of New Jersey, including programs such as Title I, II, and III grants, School Improvement Grants and New Jersey’s Race to the Top.” Then in July his rotation will take him to the White House Domestic Policy Council’s education office.
Zaid attributes his passion for education, policy, and public service to his Rutgers experiences on the George H. Cook Campus. Before he graduated in 2012 with a B.S. in Public Health and Political Science, he involved himself extensively in enrichment in and out of the classroom. He was president of the Student Governing Council of the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences for two years. He also was a student assistant at the Eagleton Institute of Politics.
He also credits his professors for encouraging his devotion to politics and policy. Dr. Ross Baker taught American Politics and Advanced Congressional Politics. “The latter course involved in-depth discussions in his living room with 12 other hand-picked students and a four-day trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with legislators,” he recalled. “Another professor of mine, Dr. Marci Berger, helped me realize my desire to work in policy to influence communities of low socioeconomic status. I took Public Health Policy and Principles of Public Health with her.”
International Public Health with Professor Elizabeth Amaya-Fernandez exposed him “to the harsh realities that many communities around the world face in terms of lack of access to healthcare, education, and other basic human rights. The capstone of this course was when our class traveled to Nicaragua over spring break to listen and learn about the health and educational disparities that existed in the urban and rural communities there.” During his senior year, Professor Ann Marie Hill helped him secure an internship at the New Jersey Department of Health’s Policy and Planning Office.
After graduation, he connected with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in low income communities. Zaid taught biology and advanced placement biology in Baltimore’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. At the same time, he earned a Master of Science in Education degree from Johns Hopkins University.
“During my time teaching, my students’ Maryland High School Assessment scores in biology increased to a record 63% (11% increase) in May 2013 and to 71% in May 2014.” Again drawing on his SEBS experience, “I also served as advisor to the Student Government Association and head of the College-Going Culture Committee.”
But it wasn’t just college that ignited Zaid’s enthusiasm and ambition.
“My interest in education stems from my parents’ emphasis on my siblings and my education throughout our childhood,” he said. “I grew up in Secaucus, N.J., and also lived abroad in Jordan for nine years as a teenager. While abroad, despite their financial struggles, my parents were adamant that we receive a quality education and sent us to a private international school. My mother is also an elementary teacher, another factor that has influenced my desire to work in public education.”
He graduated from Secaucus High School in 2008, and came to Rutgers. One of his proudest achievements, among many others, was his election to the Cap and Skull Senior Honorary Society, an organization founded in 1900 at Rutgers College to recognize a very select (only 18 per year) cadre of campus leaders.
“My life goals,” he said, “are to influence the American education system positively to ensure that all children are guaranteed a quality education and to have an impact on the lives of others. Rutgers and SEBS have prepared me well for a life of public service by providing me with dedicated professors and numerous leadership opportunities.”
And who knows. Even though Zaid says he has no ambitions to run for high office, he just might someday be headed to the White House in a different – and much more public – way.