Summer Alumni Spotlight - Vanessa Douyon '05
This month, the C-M Alumni Office is thrilled to highlight alumna and Hall of Fame Inductee Vanessa Douyon '05 for our Alumni Spotlight feature. Just 30 years old, Vanessa boasts an incredibly impressive resume as a strategy consultant for numerous education institutions, seeking to improve education opportunities for students from a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Vanessa began her career as a 5th grade math teacher with Teach For America in Central City, New Orleans. She holds an MBA with leadership distinction from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business and a B.A. in sociology from the University of Florida, where she graduated magna cum laude and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Currently serving as the Director of Strategy for Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, a charter school management organization, Vanessa leads strategy for a network of four schools including an early learning center, two pre-K to 8 schools and one high school.
There are several consistent themes that run through Vanessa's career path and professional development – service to others and providing equal education opportunities and resources to students regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances. As the Director of Strategy for a diverse by design network, Vanessa and her team seek to improve students' academic and long term outcomes by allowing them to be in a diverse learning environment. "So many of our schools are 100% low income. What I am very much interested and focused on now is how we find models where we can bring kids from different backgrounds together for the benefit of all the kids. There's a good bit of research that shows that it's not just better for low-income kids, it's better for all kids. Higher income kids show higher instances of tolerance and are more likely to get along better with people that are different from them, so I think there is a socio-emotional benefit for middle and high income students. There are obvious academic benefits for low income kids". The diverse by design network Vanessa works for consists of 60% low income and about 40% non-low-income students.
Vanessa got her start in education after receiving her MBA from the University of Chicago Started, when she started working for Teach for America in New Orleans. Vanessa shared with us her impressive journey from Cheerleading Captain here at Chaminade-Madonna, to a Rotary Ambassador Scholarship trip to Senegal, Africa, to serving on a three person leadership team in charge of almost 250 people.
Did you always know you wanted to pursue this path?
"I don't think many people really know what they want to do, especially when you are that young. I was not one of the lucky few who had very early or clear discernments. I was always intent on pursuing a career that had an aspect of service or some facet through which I could improve the world from my little pocket wherever that vantage point was. I think that was a very clear thread from my time at C-M – I did a lot of service work and was engaged in ministry while at Chaminade. Education was always in the back of my head for two reasons. For one, a number of my family members are in education. My grandfather started a school in Haiti, my aunts are teachers – so education in many ways was always interesting to me. Secondly, from a personal vantage point, I hopped around to all sorts and types of schools when I was little. My education experience swung from Garrison Forest School in Baltimore, Maryland which provided a very elite education where my parents paid tons of money for me to attend, and then all of a sudden they couldn't do it anymore for financial reasons so I ended up at very much the opposite end of the spectrum in public school. Ultimately for high school, we very intentionally chose Chaminade-Madonna and it allowed me to see the breadth of what kids are able to have based on how much money they have, what resources they have, or what talents they have".
"My experiences in public school left a really firm mark on my heart for wanting to make sure that no matter what a kid's socioeconomic circumstances are, that they still get a good education. In college, I wasn't quite sure how I would do that. Year one all the courses in sociology are "Social Problems" that talks about all the things that are wrong and you have a feeling of "great, now what?" I ultimately decided that there was so much to in K-12 and that's where the action is. It's why I chose sociology, it's why I chose to teach and work in New Orleans."
You served in Senegal as a Rotary Ambassador Scholar – can you tell me about that experience?
"There are lots of things I am so thankful for, but I would say that's probably at the top of my list. I didn't get to study abroad in college, mostly because I was pretty involved at UF and found myself always in a position where I couldn't due to leadership commitments. My sophomore year, a good friend of mine applied for Rotary Program and I thought that would be a great opportunity to pursue if I took a gap year after college. It would afford me the opportunity to live outside of the country for a little bit, but also not take away from my undergrad experience. I lived with a host family in Saly, a beautiful beach town in Senegal. In Senegal they speak Wolof and they also speak French, and so I picked up a little bit of Wolof, but my family is Haitian so that's really where I firmed up my French. I could understand French before I went to Senegal but that was where I learned to speak and it's a lifelong gift that I got out of that trip. I was also granted the gift of getting to know people who live life in a very different way from you and see things different from you".
"I learned, as a woman, that whenever I was the oldest woman at the dinner space, to split apart the fish and make sure that all of the kids had some. I will never forget, it was about five months or so into my trip, my house took me to her family's so I could east at their house for a funeral. But when they took me, I ended up being at a bowl with 6 or 7 strangers who were all younger than me and I immediately did what I had learned from my host family, to pull apart the fish and hand them out to the children, To experience being in a new culture but feeling a part of a culture and feeling accepted, understood, was a pretty incredible experience. I worked in a lot of schools, I got to start a school library for the Catholic school that was just up the street. Senegal was very special – it taught me a language, it taught me another culture, and it gave me some really great learning and leadership experiences".
It takes a lot of courage to go to another country and do all of that – did you ever have any doubts or fears or uncertainty?
I'm a little bit of an adventurous person, so I never really seriously thought about going home. There were some days that I was really sad, specifically in the fall and winter around my birthday and the holidays. I actually lived with a Muslim family in Senegal, and it was interesting because they were quite devout. My house mother said her prayers every day at the times she was supposed to say them. Seeing their strength and faith was inspiring. Sometimes I felt quite lonely - you're in a country where you don't know anything or anyone. The church became quite home to me because no matter where you are in the world, even if they are saying the prayers in a different language, you still know what they were saying. In a Muslim country on Christmas, there is no sign of Christmas unlike in the States. In Senegal, 80%-90% of folks are Muslim and the Catholics are a very small but fierce minority. Luckily, there was a lovely church and school within walking distance of my house. On Christmas day, I'll never forget, it was 100 degrees, and the only sign of Christmas was a 100 pound man wearing a dollar store Christmas hat and red t-shirt in the town market. It was only attending a midnight mass where I actually felt like it was Christmas. You always have your relationship with God and have God with you, but I think in your lonelier or darker or sadder moments, you realize how important that relationship with God is.
Prior to joining her position at Bellwether in 2015, Vanessa launched Moxie Leadership Academy, an emotional intelligence program for girls in low income communities. Vanessa shared with us about the process of creating a non-profit startup, from an idea and drive to make a difference to project execution.
"Obviously I have a love for education and was trying to figure out where in K-12 education made sense for me to pursue. I am especially passionate about mentoring middle school girls – it's an awkward time in their lives. While as a teacher you appreciate all their oddities and their quirkiness and their individuality, because they are in middle school, they don't yet appreciate it. For me, summer was a huge and exciting time for me as a kid – I was always going off to summer camp or some activity that my parents had lined up for me. When I came back after my first year teaching, I will never forget on the first day back, we played an activity where all the kids had to say what they did over the summer. Most of the kids said things like "I watched TV" or "I slept" – and I was like "You should be outside! You should be going to camp!" But of course camps cost money and a lot of folks can't afford to go. Simultaneously, kids forget so much of what they learn over the summer – so because their parents can't afford for them to have some sort of experience where they are keeping their brains active, they come back in the fall and it's like they lost a little bit of even where they were in June".
"When I was in business school, I thought maybe there's a way to mix socioeconomic statuses in a camp to get enough kids who can pay to break even and be a non-profit and support those kids whose parents could not afford to send them to camp. I called a very good friend who has her doctorate in psychology and is also very passionate about middle school girls, and together she and I launched a pilot in the summer of 2014 to run the program. We had some really great success – we had around 20 girls sign up. We were able to get a school who would lend us their facilities for no charge. We were successful in getting media attention and partner schools on board. We had a pretty successful year but then at the end of the summer, I had two reflections. One was that I had loans for graduate school and I don't think the time was personally and financially right for me to be running a start up like the Moxie Leadership Academy. The other was that we had a ton of success getting low-income girls, but not as much success in getting girls from families with the ability to pay. It's interesting because this year my major project is running an early learning center with the exact same strategy – recruiting paying parents and Head Start parents and that has actually worked out quite well. So I definitely learned some lessons from the experience".
What are some of the challenges that you face?
When you isolate low-income K-12 students, you also isolate resources. Yes there are grants that help to support those kids but overall, you have higher rates of teacher turnover, less overall funding per pupil, etc. At the same time you have those struggles, it's compounded with greater need. Kids have experienced a lot of trauma – we worked in a city (New Orleans) where there is an undue amount of violence that our kids witness against people they know and against themselves on a very regular basis. These kids need counseling and they can't afford it. With fewer resources, we are trying to do more. When I was in high school, I never witnessed a murder or loss of one of my friends, so I didn't need that sort of psychological or socio-emotional support but our kids do and we have less to do it with. So whether your brother was murdered, or you were stranded on a roof for a week after Hurricane Katrina watching people die in front of you – for some of our kids that is their reality. Whether it's violent trauma, or the trauma of living in a low income neighborhood and not having resources, those things are very real and we have less to tackle them with. Personally and professionally, there is definitely a weight that you take home at the end of the day".
"Generally speaking, I am 30 years old, and I am on a three person leadership team in charge of 250 people – there is so much I have yet to learn and know and yet, many times, I have to make decisions that affect a lot of peoples' lives and their livelihoods. On a regular basis there is a lot, but at the same time I feel so grateful".
Can you tell us about some of your favorite memories or experiences while at C-M?
"I was on the cheerleading team all four years and got to captain my senior year alongside people who are still my best friends. That was one of my very first leadership opportunities and it gave me lifelong friends. I did Encounter with those folks, I led Encounter with those folks, I did and led Antioch with those folks. I learned more in Mr. Heffernan's English class than I've ever learned with 9 other students who were very different from me, pushing my ideas. Mr. Heffernan taught me so much that year – academically in terms of ways to think, and then also obviously in terms of how to love and respect myself".
Is there any advice you would like to offer people who are looking to get involved with a cause?
"One piece of advice is ask someone who you're inspired by or are interested in what they're doing. In my life, mentors and managers and even peers have been so instrumental in helping to craft my career and my path. I wouldn't have gone to Senegal if it weren't for my friend, I wouldn't be at this job if it weren't for my mentor".
"For me, I reflected on my own educational experiences and how it's not fair that a kid doesn't get to a good school because they were born in a poor neighborhood. The next thing for me was "what is a strategy to solve it. Identify something you care about. Identify how you can carve out a little corner for yourself in that area of the world to make a difference in someone's life".