Higher Learning Advocates Board Members and Staff: Inspiration for Higher Education

Higher Learning Advocates is a bipartisan non-profit advocacy organization working to shift federal policy from higher education to higher learning—education and training beyond high school that leads to a degree, credential, or employment. Its board members and staff are committed to the change needed to support the needs and success of today’s students, and are advocating for policies that support a system that is student-centered, outcomes-based, and focused on ensuring all of today’s students can access and succeed in postsecondary education.

Higher Learning Advocates’ staff and board members shared with Insights & Outlooks the inspiration behind their passion to advocate for today’s students.

Dr. Chris Bustamante

“The opportunity to serve people in my community and beyond with expanded higher education opportunities to improve their lives. It was a time for me to ‘pay it forward’ for those who came before me and provided the same opportunity for me – and now for my children – to pursue higher education, and to ultimately become a community college president. I was the only one of seven children in my family to earn a university degree and at every college commencement that I presided over, I was reminded how significant the work in higher education is to change lives for the better.”

Ashley Clark

“I decided I wanted to become an advocate for higher education while working as a recruiter for Teach For America. I spent my days talking to students about their education experiences, and their experiences were generally tied to race, income, and luck. This prompted me to reflect on my own experience as a first-generation student from Appalachia and how fortunate I was to have the support network that I did. I decided that I wanted to change the postsecondary system to be more equitable and more conducive to student success.”

Madison Cooley

“I had a part-time job while in college working for an afterschool program at a low-income elementary school. The kids would always ask me what college was like. During one of the conversations, my favorite student said he was not going to college because his parents told him they would never be able to afford it. It broke my heart and got me thinking about college affordability and accessibility. No student, no matter the age, should feel like what determines their future is where they are from or the amount of money they possess. On the spot, I changed my career trajectory from campaigns and consulting to higher education policy.”

India Heckstall

“I knew I wanted to become an advocate for higher education policy after my home state made significant budget cuts to higher education funding. This resulted in me and fellow classmates losing state financial aid and some students were unable to return to school the following semester. Experiencing this firsthand, sparked my interest in learning more about college affordability and the government’s role in assisting students with completing their postsecondary education.”

Erica Hilton

“In high school, no one outside of my family spoke to me about college affordability. The only people I learned about FAFSA, financial aid, applications, and deadlines from were family members, particularly my mother. While I was privileged to have their guidance on higher education, I realized it shouldn’t have been the only resource that I had to depend on. I decided that I wanted to work in higher education policy to help advocate for today’s students, especially first-generation, low-income, and students of color.”

Dr. Dewayne Matthews

“It may seem odd to name a bunch of state bureaucrats as those who inspired me to spend my career working in higher education, but in 1985, at the tender age of 34, I attended my first meeting of the State Higher Education Executive Officers shortly after being named the Executive Director of the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education. There I met others who played the unique role of SHEEO in their states — people like Ken Ashworth in Texas, Pat Callan in California, Ted Hollander in New Jersey, Ann Daley in Washington, David Longanecker in Colorado, and Dick Wagner in Illinois. They all shared a passion for expanding college access and believed higher education must serve the public interest. They believed that data, clear analysis, and a telling anecdote could lead to good decisions, even in contentious political environments. I learned from them that policy matters.”

Former Congressman Luke Messer

“Individuals can still make a difference in modern America. When I was serving in Congress, I was approached by Jason Nyikos, a veteran from Greenfield Indiana. With the sudden closure of ITT Technical Institute, Jason was going to lose his GI Bill benefits and be required to start his degree completely from scratch after spending two years at the school.

Jason was one of more than 16,000 students using Pell Grants to attend ITT Tech that were in danger of not being able to finish their degree due to lifetime GI Bill eligibility limitations.

Because of Jason’s leadership, I worked with President Obama’s Department of Education to restore grants for any student hurt by the ITT tech closure. The Administration agreed and reset the benefits for affected students through existing authority.

Further, thousands of veterans attending ITT Tech and California-based Corinthian Colleges using GI Bill benefits were in danger of not finishing their degrees when benefits were running out and credits did not transfer. I worked across the aisle with Mark Takano of California to introduce legislation to modernize the GI Bill and fully restore benefits for now and in the future. In addition, the bill helped veterans who may be impacted by a school closure in the future. This bill was enacted into law as part of the Harry Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017. “

Julie Peller

“Higher education opens the doors of economic opportunity. And, federal policy can affect access, affordability and potential for success for millions of students each year. While working in the U.S. House of Representatives, I had the opportunity to see those two elements come together- to see needs met and policies enacted that significantly improved the state of higher education in this country. Each day I am excited to continue that work through Higher Learning Advocates, broaden the nation’s perception of “students,” and identify and enact policies that improve higher learning for all of today’s students.”

Dr. Kim Hunter Reed

“Being born into a family of educators instilled in me a passion for this work. My grandmother, an English teacher who integrated a rural school in Louisiana, was the torch barrier for education in our family. She knew that erasing achievement gaps required erasing belief gaps – so she set the bar high and her students exceeded expectations. It’s a relevant lesson today as we work to increase opportunity and attainment in Louisiana and across the country. Our students need champions who believe in their unlimited potential.”

Nia Davis Sigona, Esq.

I can’t pinpoint an exact eureka moment when I knew I wanted to become an advocate for higher education policy. Rather, I’ve been building toward this work as a part of my firm belief that education is freedom, and it is possible to structure a system of P-20 education that makes us all better off. The first moment I knew I wanted to work in education policy was when I interned at the Harlem Children’s Zone and first learned about the cradle to career pipeline. The idea that a community could come together to build such a supportive, student-centered system first inspired me to make a career of education reform. I deeply believe that education is the great equalizer, or as Mary McLeod Bethune said, “the great American adventure, the world’s most colossal democratic experiment.” I am constantly and consistently inspired by today’s students, and the potential and privilege to translate their stories and experiences into systems of policy that support their (and all of our) success.”

Emily Bouck West

“While working as a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate, I was given the opportunity to learn from dynamic national and statewide higher education leaders who identified critical challenges today’s students face. Having the opportunity to propose potential bipartisan policy solutions to those challenges is when I knew how important it is to be an advocate for updated higher education policy. Continuing to educate policymakers and stakeholders about who today’s students are and the experiences they face day-in and day-out and working toward real change to drive outcomes for today’s students is my inspiration in higher education.”