Bringing Education to Nations of Students

May 31, 2018

by Lini S. Kabada

Throughout his career, first as an educator and now as a developer of international social-impact programs, Christopher Ashford, GR’00, has wanted to improve the lives of children.

At each stop on his path from English teacher to leadership at several of the largest international development firms in the world, he has aimed to broaden his reach.

Christopher Ashford, GR’00

After teaching, Ashford set his sights on the role of superintendent at an urban school district, seeking the potential to influence the education of thousands. He came to Penn GSE to prepare for such an administrative post. However, by the time he graduated with a Ph.D. in education and human development, he envisioned impact on a national scale.

He had experienced two defining moments at Penn GSE. First, he earned the Mellon Fellowship to study abroad in Botswana, which exposed him to the needs of developing countries. Second, he worked with Margaret Beale Spencer, a professor of child and developmental psychology at Penn GSE at the time.

Ashford recalls that Spencer took him under her wing, mentoring him and other African American students on the path to a doctorate. “I felt like I had found a home,” he says. Under Spencer’s tutelage, Ashford studied career trajectories of special-needs African American boys in urban environments, using a theory that the professor had developed.

“Penn GSE shared my interest in viewing education within a context and not in a vacuum.”

Since receiving his doctorate, Ashford has spent the bulk of his career working for international agencies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, implementing education as one of several fundamental factors that improve lives. He manages diverse, multimilliondollar projects in education, youth development, food and water security, renewable energy, and small business development. Always, he says, the goal is scalable and sustainable impact.

“I focus on putting together a very dynamic team and identifying local and national talent who can come in after me and manage the work,” says Ashford. In his current role as managing director, lead technology strategist, and chief of party at Chemonics International, he is overseeing Rwanda’s national literacy program for 2.5 million schoolchildren. The $75 million USAID contract is meant to develop not only quality reading materials, but also quality teacher training efforts. “Our work is building out whole education systems,” he says.

Next, Ashford heads to Bangladesh to start an education program under a $100 million contract—the largest in the world, he says. He credits Penn GSE with the foundation for his career path.

“Penn GSE shared my interest in viewing education within a context and not in a vacuum,” he says. “It was an amazing place to study and a great place to launch my career.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of The Penn GSE Magazine.