Rutgers alumnus discusses experience developing education policy at The White House
Although he has moved on from his days working for Teach for America, Zaid Abuhouran keeps photos of his former students at his desk as a reminder of the children his job aims to help.
Abuhouran, a Rutgers class of 2012 alumnus, has a slightly wider vantage point with his current position — he develops and implements educational policy at the United States Department of Education as a Presidential Management Fellow.
Since last July, he has assisted policymakers and administrators in Nevada and New Jersey with programs like "Race to the Top" and grants to schools. Next summer, he will be working directly with presidential advisors at the Domestic Policy Council of the White House.
The son of a teacher, Abuhouran was interested in both science and public service when he entered the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He ended up majoring in both public health and political science and served two years as president of the SEBS Governing Council.
“A lot of public service and social justice issues are encompassed in public health,” he said. “Political science came naturally as well –– I’ve always been interested in policies that affect people domestically.”
After graduation, Abuhouran joined Teach for America and taught biology in a Baltimore, Maryland public school while earning a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins University. The time gave him direct exposure with the social justice issues he had studied.
“It was one of the most challenging, but rewarding, things I’ve ever done,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself, about my students, about the community … the issues my students and their families faced were very apparent.”
After graduation, he applied and was hired to work in the Department of Education. The two-year PMF internship has a less than 6 percent acceptance rate.
Part of the internship includes a six-month rotation to another office –– in this case, the Domestic Policy Council, where he will help develop policy for elementary, secondary and higher education students.
He said one of his central goals is to always focus on what is best for students, hence the photos.
“They remind me why I’m here,” he said.
One of his favorite parts about the job is knowing that his work influences not just a classroom of students, but students across several different states.
To future policymakers earning their degree at Rutgers, he suggested networking and “putting (themselves) out there.”
“You need to meet people and find opportunities that will benefit you –– follow your interests,” he said.
Rick Ludescher, academic dean of SEBS, worked with Abuhouran during his time as leader of the SEBS Governing Council.
He called Abuhouran “quite dynamic” and a good leader.
Abuhouran is one of many students at SEBS who have combined their scientific learning with other subjects like policy, Ludescher said. The school offers several more technical majors, such as food science, along with broader topics like public health and environmental policy.
“Really, the best way to have an impact is through changing the way people do things,” he said.
Many of the students who are hired out of SEBS for their technical expertise later go into administrative and policy positions, he said.
Ross Baker, a professor in the Department of Political Science, recalled Abuhouran as an outgoing participant in his class on Congressional elections.
“He had a very keen interest in American politics, and was among the most enthusiastic members of the class,” he said.
Baker personally wants to inspire his students to go into public service, and tries to encourage them through his class and through trips to Washington, D.C. Abuhouran was one student who always seemed like a perfect fit to go into public service, Baker said.
“If I was to choose between any student I’ve ever had which would end up in the White House, it would be Zaid,” he said.