Rachael is a founding SNHU GEM team member and previously served as the program’s Vice President of Academic Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer.
Southern New Hampshire University’s Global Education Movement (SNHU GEM) has a new Vice President and Executive Director, Rachael Sears. Rachael is a familiar face in the SNHU GEM community – she was a founding team member and most recently served as the Vice President of Academic Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer. Our team sat down with Rachael to talk about her new role and get to know her a little better, and even after all these years, we admit there were a few surprises!
Can you tell us about your previous role as SNHU GEM’s Vice President of Academic Operations and Chief Sustainability Officer?
As one of the founding team members of SNHU GEM, I’ve been really fortunate to be involved in building so many aspects of the program – everything from developing and implementing our overall mission and vision, to overseeing programmatic components like partnership selection and relationships. I’ve worked on academic operations, curriculum design, program delivery, student assessment and feedback, international expansion and program sustainability.
One of the most exciting initiatives I oversaw was launching academic operations centers in Rwanda and South Africa. These centers help us provide high-quality assessment and support to students, while driving down the cost of degree delivery by more than 60% and ensuring long-term program sustainability.
What did you do before coming onboard to help build SNHU GEM?
I have over 20 years of experience developing partnerships and guiding U.S. and international school administrations on academic programming, assessments, curriculum and student support. I have specialized in creating strategies that help ensure access to education for vulnerable learners.
Prior to joining SNHU GEM, I worked for the New York City Department of Education, which is the largest school district in the U.S. I oversaw assessments, speech and language, assistive technology and related services for 1.5 million students across 5 boroughs in over 2,000 locations. Before getting into education, I worked with several international business organizations to build corporate partnerships and execute large-scale, sustainable international projects.
What are you most looking forward to in your new role, and what are your goals for SNHU GEM in the next year?
SNHU’s commitment to GEM students – the world’s most vulnerable learners and their surrounding communities – continues to be the focus of the GEM program. This commitment aligns with SNHU’s overall commitment to expand access to education and serve learners for whom traditional higher education is not an option.
I am most looking forward to serving our students and watching them shine. I will continue to gain a deeper understanding of students/partners priorities and goals – and ensure that these priorities and goals are embedded in the GEM program. In this regard, we recently launched two new academic programs and updated our employment support programs to ensure that we continue to address student, partner and employer needs.
What have some of your favorite memories been as an SNHU GEM program leader?
My favorite memories all include watching students thrive in the SNHU GEM program, achieve their goals and transform their lives. We’ve had over 1,200 associate degree graduates, and 800 bachelor’s degree graduates so far – and these students all show such creativity, persistence, and grit. They are truly inspiring.
As one example, SNHU GEM just signed a contract with a refugee-led organization, ATE HUB, to become an academic partner at one of our sites. Two of our SNHU GEM graduates founded and are leading this organization. They are brilliant, they have deep roots in their communities, and they have earned the respect of the students. This is a really exciting moment for them and for GEM. It’s exciting to see our students become partners and more.
What do you think makes SNHU GEM so special and unique in the higher education and refugee education space?
Right now, only 5% of refugees have access to tertiary education according to UNHCR. Crucially, SNHU GEM has demonstrated that it is possible to deliver high-quality, accredited degree programs and pathways to employment in the refugee context.
Because our curriculum is competency based, rather than time bound, we can meet students where they are, and they can succeed at the pace that works for them. Our model is hybrid, with online academic work and support, accompanied with on-the-ground, in-person wrap-around services that include academic coaching, employment support, mental health and nutrition services.
That unique model is truly what sets students up for success – and a key factor of what allowed our students to continue to learn and thrive during the pandemic. When the COVID pandemic hit, we transitioned students to fully remote learning and provided laptops and data bundles. Students had uninterrupted access to their curriculum and were able to move at their own pace according to their changing needs. GEM students were incredibly resilient and continued to make progress toward their degrees. As sites have opened back up, our model allows us to bring students back to hybrid learning and continue to offer wrap-around support.
Across each of our sites, SNHU GEM students prove that when given the chance to earn a degree and work, they not only transform their own lives, but the lives of those around them, and their communities.
What is something SNHU GEM students or partners would be surprised to know about you?
I tap danced at Carnegie Hall in New York City when I was nine. And yes, there is a picture, complete with a tutu and very large pink hair bow.