HLA Champion, Jason Smith, Ph.D.

Jason Smith, Ph.D.

Senior Community Development Advisor, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

“The driving passion behind my work in higher education really comes from seeing its power to improve economic opportunity, personal mobility and health. When you hear the individual stories of students who were in very different situations, and how it impacted them, it reminds me that it’s not just the process, it’s not just the policy. Our choices really do make a difference in the lives of individuals.”

Jason had a unique path to his current role in education policy and as the Executive Director of Bridging Richmond, a Lumina Foundation and Kresge Foundation designated Talent Hub. As a minister and nonprofit administrator in the area of community health, he saw that isolated social programs helped with immediate needs like food insecurity and out-of-school opportunities but did not address the causes of poverty. As an inner-city community center director, he encountered businesses that would not hire people who faithfully volunteered at the center because of their “zip code.” It became clear that without disrupting systems that perpetuate poverty and inequity, the impact of isolated programs could have on well-being would be limited.

“This work is really about economic mobility and wealth creation. We have such disparities in family wealth development by race and socio-economic status in our country. That’s not going to change solely through education, but education is a critical piece.”

For Jason, advancing student success is a continuation of his interest in supporting healthy communities. As a former community health liaison for a nonprofit healthcare system, Jason saw the opportunity to extend continuous improvement best practices from healthcare into education and nonprofit sectors. Today, Jason pursues that passion as the Associate Vice Provost of Community Engagement at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Much like organizational development consultants, Bridging Richmond staff contribute expertise and project coordination that helps the partners address practice and policy improvements needed to promote student success. Within K-12, Bridging Richmond is currently working to align state, school district and building-level continuous improvement methods. Within higher education, partners are working on pathway mapping, reverse transfer opportunities, re-engaging adults with some post-secondary experience and alignment of student supports.

Lumina Foundation selected Jason to participate in their federal policy corps and was part of the 2018 Virginia delegation to the Lumina state higher education policy retreat. Jason dreams of a system that better integrates prior learning, high quality credentials, two-year and four-year degrees. He advocates for policy solutions to help all students reach their potential by creating pathways to success that are clearer, more affordable and supported by wrap-around services.

It is too easy to see one part of the system and to work to advance the interests of our primary role in it. We see the pendulum swing between public support for bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees and industry credentials instead of thinking about how today’s learner will navigate and connect multiple learning experiences in their careers. Similarly, to help today’s students be successful, we cannot treat education policy separately from areas like health and housing. What if tomorrow’s student experienced these things as one supportive system?