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A Citizen, and Teacher, of the World: Christopher N. Steel, Ph.D. ’99

Christopher N. Steel, Ph.D. ’99 in Nyeri, Kenya.

An alumnus makes it his mission to help improve access to quality education on a global scale.

Christopher N. Steel, Ph.D. ‘99, always knew he had an “obligation to participate in the sweaty work of the world.” He is currently a diplomat at the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID), the humanitarian, development and assistance arm of the U.S. Department of State, a role he could only have dreamed of as teenager. Even at the tender age of 17, he felt called to work globally in service to others. At The University of Scranton, he found a place to nurture both his “desire to explore wide-ranging cultures” and to fulfill the Jesuit ideal of becoming a man for others.

“It was clear to me that what you get out of college depends on what you put into it... and Scranton simply had plenty of places to dive in. The campus valued the richness and variety of what the world offers, but I had no clue how to harness that; it seemed Scranton knew how to make it happen and, over those four years, it very much did,” he said.

Dr. Steel, a native of Oradell, New Jersey, plunged headlong into campus life when he arrived in Scranton in1995. He held a part-time job, served as class president, resident assistant and an orientation aide. The University taught him to do what he liked. “I quickly learned that when we do what we like, there’s very little chance of getting it wrong,” he said. “Scranton instilled that in me, just as much as taught me to not settle on half-thought-out ideas, but to wait and endorse more full-fledged ideals.”

Fortified by his Scranton experiences, Dr. Steel spent his first post-grad year volunteering at an education NGO in rural Ecuador. He then returned stateside to teach high school science, but after five years in the classroom, took a break to pursue other educational interests, particularly understanding the role of technology in K-12 education policy. That led to a master’s degree from Harvard University, along with a host of new questions about how technology might change the educational landscape of developing countries. 

He would later learn the transformational power of technology in education development and about certain universal needs like “feeling connected and contributing to something bigger than ourselves,” but, first, he pursued a doctorate, examining civic education models in the international sphere. 

After attending the University of Pennsylvania, he moved full-time into public policy, joining consultancy projects at UNESCO (United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris, and later returning to Ecuador to continue his dissertation research as a Fulbright Fellow with the U.S. Department of State. After spending 2010 in Ecuador, he joined the U.S. diplomatic corps. 

While serving in Nairobi, Kenya, from 2011 to 2013, Dr. Steel’s office formed a partnership with leading technology firms, such as Cisco, Intel and Microsoft. The partnership, Accelerating 21st Century Technology (ACE), continues to create e-centered learning environments in Kenyan classrooms and trains 230 in-service teachers and 3,000 pre-service teachers each year. 

ACE brings new techniques to incorporate digital content and critical and creative-thinking skills into the curriculum at 28,000 primary schools. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize young people’s future job opportunities by matching the labor market needs with ready-and-able students to fill an ever-widening employment gap. “In East Africa, IT is a lever for economic growth, and so much of what we claim is ‘good education’ is relative to who’s looking to hire, particularly in emerging economies like Kenya,” he said. “A Kenyan student with functional IT skills, who can fully endorse the type of critical and creative thinking happening at, for example, the Google Nairobi office or in the IT incubators throughout town, has countless opportunities.”

Today, Dr. Steel leads the Basic Education Directorate at the Agency’s mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. “The overseas postings in this line of work are incredibly challenging and equally rewarding, and Kabul is certainly no exception,” he said of his work there. 

Dr. Steel’s commitment to international education is unwavering. “Regardless of where they are, students need to be nurtured, engaged and connected to their world,” he said. “Every kid everywhere should have access to quality education.”

Dr. Steel will transition from Kabul to Guatemala City, Guatemala, for his next assignment in September.

Steel kids
Students in Nakuru, Kenya.

Christopher N. Steel, Ph.D. '99 answers questions about his life and career.

What inspires you each day in your job, and what role did Scranton and/or Jesuit education play in your seeking to live a life of service?

I've learned that when we do what we like, there's very little chance of getting it wrong. Scranton taught me not to settle on half-thought-out ideas, but to endorse full-fledged ideals. I'm also very excited by the leadership that the U.S. brings to the international community. USAID is the principal agency to extend assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty and engaging in democratic reforms. While U.S. foreign assistance has always had the two-fold purpose of furthering America's foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets, while also improving the lives of the citizens of the developing world, we do it by spending less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget. It’s a great business investment if you ask me, but it’s an even better display of the generosity and caring that stands as a hallmark of the U.S. around the world; it shows the world our true character as a nation.

What have students around the world taught you?

I had the chance to work with then-Secretary of State Clinton while in Zambia, at a regional economic growth conference in 2011. She asked me the same question. I shared with the Secretary that students everywhere continue to teach me patience, humor, to be prepared and how to be gracious. Actually, I think this is the same of adults, too, wherever I seem to travel for assignments now. Regardless, I’m always humbled by how people are more similar than different. That’s a large generalization, but my experience moving in and out of world cultures gives me plenty of opportunity to discover who I really am and what life is all about. I think we all want the same thing: to love and be loved, to feel connected and contribute to something bigger than ourselves. And to laugh. Especially to laugh.

How are students the same wherever you go....and what does every student need to succeed?

Regardless of where they are, students need to be nurtured, engaged and connected to their world. Of course, they also need direction and focus to learn, so the role of a strong mentor or teacher is essential. But they can’t learn on an empty belly nor if they’re feeling ill, so medical and social support services are necessary inputs in many of the places I work. Students also need to feel valued and that their skills, talents, abilities and experiences are recognized. These are all necessary inputs to create a safe learning environment. In countries that are reasonably well governed, economically stable, globally connected and market-oriented, these aspects are relatively well understood. Of course, it’s a bit more nuanced in conflict environments, but I’ve come to learn that how a local society treats its kids reflects what it values as a community. So when it comes to setting up learning environments in those places, we’re not always reflecting our best self – not because we don’t want to, but it many cases it’s just not fully possible to sort out the complex issues at the source of the problem in these types of places. I work at the policy and systems levels in these environments and while we strive to design policies that very much remain student-centric, it’s challenging. But it’s not impossible. That said, I’m a realist at heart, but there is no reason why a world of such abundance continues to have such poverty, period. We’re too advanced as a global society for this. Every kid everywhere should have access to quality education. Why can’t we just get it right?

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