Alum burnishes skills as a presidential fellow at U.S. Department of Education

August 23, 2023
Mark Ziegler-Thayer smiles at the camera wearing a white blazer over a gray sweater, standing in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building in Washington, D.C. The words “U.S. Department of Education” are mounted on the face of the building in large metal letters above Mark’s head.

Mark Ziegler-Thayer stands in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building in Washington, D.C. The UTAP and education policy alum went on to be named a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo courtesy of Scott Thayer)

What begins as a part-time job can spark an inspired career path. As an undergraduate, Mark Ziegler-Thayer thrived working as a kindergarten teacher’s assistant in an after-school program. The experience inspired them to ultimately pursue a career in education.

“My love for the field, building community with students and families, and doing my part to make the necessary changes in the education system, has grown ever since,” said Ziegler-Thayer during a recent conversation from Washington, D.C.

After completing their graduate work at Penn GSE, Ziegler-Thayer went on to prestigious postings in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program and the U.S. Department of Education.

Established in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, the two-year PMF program provides graduate students with leadership training through postings across the federal government. Ziegler-Thayer was attracted to the program because they aspired to work in education, specifically at the Education Department’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education.

At the Department of Education, Ziegler-Thayer works as an educational specialist focused on three areas: collaborating with state and local education agencies to support the educational stability of students in the foster care system, managing and analyzing the effectiveness of grants to state and local education agencies, and collaborating with schools to improve the academic and life outcomes for at-risk or marginalized students.

“There are plenty of opportunities within and outside of the fellowship for PMFs to expand on their skillsets and take on leadership roles,” Ziegler-Thayer said.

They credit Penn GSE for helping chart the course. After being awarded the Dean’s Scholarship upon admittance, Ziegler-Thayer earned a master’s degree in elementary education through the Urban Teaching Apprenticeship Program (UTAP) and a second master’s in education policy. Field placements in a Philadelphia elementary school and conducting research for clients from the New York City Department of Education helped develop and fine-tune their professional skills.

“Faculty at Penn aided me … by guiding me through the teaching process, sharpening my research skills, and deepening my critical thinking ability,” they said.

Ziegler-Thayer plans to continue focusing on educational inequity and public policy and is also interested in studying gaps in student achievement, college access and success, and career readiness around racial and class lines, particularly among foster youth. Ziegler-Thayer hopes the work will help increase access to high-quality and equitable education for all students.

“I want to lead conversations around and develop novel and practical methods to increase marginalized students’ success rates in and beyond their K–12 schooling,” they said. “I’m very interested in forging a career in academia, government and politics, K–12 leadership, or in engaging in legal advocacy work for students at all levels of the education system.”

To learn more about Penn GSE’s UTAP and ed policy programs and how you too can help lead equitable changes, visit the UTAP and ed policy program pages. Both programs are currently enrolling for 2024.