She Left the Education Dept. for Groups It Curbed. Now She’s Back, With Plans.

Ms. Jones attended a diverse, low-income school outside Baltimore, after she and her mother fled domestic violence. Students there were seen as “those kids,” for whom higher education seemed out of reach.

In her junior year, against the advice of her administrators, the high-achieving student chose to cut her class schedule in half to join a program, called “cooperative education,” that allowed her to do an apprenticeship at a hospital as a nursing assistant.

The program was intended for students with behavioral and other challenges. That was not her profile, but it was the only program that kept Ms. Jones in high school. Her mother needed help paying the bills, and Ms. Jones was looking for a way to earn money.

“I learned more in that experience than in any of my schooling,” said Ms. Jones, a trained molecular biologist. “I realized that if you find opportunities for students, everybody has their place.”

Ms. Jones denies that she favors a certain type of school, but she admits she identifies with a certain kind of student.

That includes students who, like her, were branded for taking a nontraditional path — although she was ranked No. 1 in her class, she could not be valedictorian because she enrolled in the alternative program. Students who put themselves through college on stipends and scholarships. And others who take career diversions like she did to attend a for-profit massage therapy school and run her own business, gaining skills to navigate their way to powerful institutions like the National Science Foundation, Congress, and the Education and Labor Departments.

Ms. Jones said that it was those experiences that were driving her changes, and what she believed was an honest conversation about improving every part of the higher education system.

“There are people out there who think this can be done in a different way, and I don’t resent that,” she said. “But frankly, I have ideas for how to do it, and mine are grounded in the experience of being the underdog.”

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