Student Profile: Candidate for Change

January 28, 2016

kate-rollertA look inside Kate Rollert’s journey to reshape education

By Lauren Ebelt

Kate Rollert wanted to be a doctor.

She was in her senior year, pursuing bachelor’s degrees in biomedical science and chemistry and studying for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), when she received an email.

“A Teach For America recruiter asked me for coffee and convinced me to put off a medical career for two years and go teach,” Rollert said. “I figured, why not? I thought I’d gain a valuable life experience.”

Setting the stage

Six years, a master’s degree, en route to a Ph.D. and one incredible internship later—you could easily say that Rollert’s life has been changed.

In 2009, she headed to Dallas, Texas through Teach For America to teach high school biology. In her second year, she also taught chemistry. She excelled: Her biology students scored 28 percent above the district average, she coached a team that won first place at a science fair and she led a team of seven teachers toward 17 percent gains on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

She went on to Southern Methodist University, and graduated in 2011 with a Master’s of Education in Policy and Leadership.

She applied to Harvard, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University for her doctoral degree—and she chose East Lansing.

“Michigan State University stood out initially because of its highly supportive and comprehensive Educational Policy program. I was very impressed with the faculty, and liked how the doctoral students had such different and interesting backgrounds. I also really valued the freedom you had as a student to design a curriculum that best fits your research interests,” Rollert said. “MSU really respects your contributions as a student-researcher. The support I’ve had to share my work with other scholars really distinguishes MSU above all other research institutions. At MSU, the comprehensive package you get is better than anywhere else.”

Rollert is dual-enrolled in the Educational Policy and K-12 Educational Administration doctoral programs, specializing in urban education. She has served as a research assistant, teaching assistant and instructor—and if all that wasn’t enough, Rollert was about to do something amazing again.

Power of communication

Rollert was selected out of hundreds of applicants to be one of eight people working in the Office of the First Lady of the United States.

She was selected for the spring 2015 semester of the highly competitive White House Internship Program, meant to prepare future leaders from around the nation. She was one of three from Michigan among more than 140 interns.

Throughout the course of her five months in the nation’s capital, Rollert spent her days researching some of First Lady Michelle Obama’s core projects (see below). She also worked with independent organizations to help continue these efforts after President Barack Obama’s term ends.

“To institutionalize a policy, it can’t just be one organization,” Rollert said. “It has to be a group that is committed and collected to move it forward.”

Rollert worked directly under Michelle Obama and alongside her teams of senior-level leaders. She met many other executives too—including the president, Vice President Joe Biden and many others within the West and East Wings of the White House.

Through it all, she learned the power of communication.

“I think, most importantly, I learned how to talk to policymakers and people who greatly inform decision-making on a national level,” Rollert said. “There is this big disconnect between academia and the policy world. It doesn’t seem that research is meeting its potential to inform policy.

“With this internship, I could observe and better understand the decision-making process at a national level. Who is informing policymakers? How do these messages misalign with messages educational researchers send? It’s almost like we speak different languages. Academia is very esoteric, long and detailed. It encompasses so many factors—and that’s good. But policymakers want to hear things quickly, and what factors are involved.”

The internship has influenced Rollert’s ambitions after graduation. She hopes to facilitate the unification of educational policymaking with academic research and to “affect change in productive and positive ways.”

Changing urban communities

Her dreams tie into her research at MSU, too. Rollert is currently writing the proposal for her dissertation, which will be focused on urban educational settings.

She is researching how new teachers can contribute to mechanisms that marginalize or privilege certain students and how this compounds over time. She is also looking at the link between teacher preparation and the ongoing experiences of new teachers in urban schools.

“[Educators] must teach with an understanding of what it means to teach for social justice,” Rollert said. “Marginalized groups are institutionally oppressed based on historic sequestration and segregation; I think good teachers are teachers that understand this, and continue to fight for equity.”

Rollert is expected to graduate from MSU in 2017. If her past is any indication, the biggest changes and the largest impacts are yet to be seen.

“I hope to be in a place where I can affect change in productive and positive ways that reflect the narrative of people in various socially constructed groups,” Rollert said of her future. “I’d like to be in a position to facilitate the unification of educational policymaking with academic research.”


First Lady Michelle Obama’s Core Programs:

Let’s Move

Started in 2010

Objective: Solve childhood obesity

Joining Forces

Started in 2011

Objective: Support service members, veterans and their families 

Reach Higher

Started in 2014

Objective: Help all students complete their education past high school

Let Girls Learn

Started in 2015

Objective: Help girls all over the world go to and stay in school