Alumni Spotlight- Krystafer Redden
We spent an afternoon with Krystafer Redden (UH 2008) while he visited Texas from New England. Krystafer recently earned his Master’s in Public Policy from Brown University and currently works as a Transformation Specialist for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). Before a tour of our “Terry Museum” at the Foundation’s Houston office, Krystafer told us about his time as a Terry Scholar on campus and beyond.
Meeting Mr. Terry
It was overwhelming. Transformative. Life changing. I met Mr. Terry the second year they asked me to do interviews, and I was able to take a photo with him. I didn’t have a relationship with my dad. My parents got divorced when I was really young. When I was in middle school, my mom got really sick and had to take disability and retire from teaching. Also, my grandfather passed away when I was really young. I think, in ways large in small, Mr. Terry just felt like this huge father figure in my life, even though I hadn’t really met him. I think his generosity, his spirit, his outlook, and his standard of giving back to others and building a community were things that deeply resonated with me. The opportunity to tell him “Thank You” personally meant a great deal more than I could have anticipated because Mr. Terry passed away not too long after that.
I have many fond memories, but if I had to pick just one, it would be the opportunity to give the senior speech at UH Banquet. It definitely was not something that I expected. I talked about something that I- many of us- deal with. When this great blessing is offered, many of us ask, “Why was I chosen? Why was I given this opportunity over someone else?” When I got to campus and met people who were interviewed and didn’t get the scholarship, I spent a lot of time wondering how it ended up being me. I talked a little about it in my speech- how all of us were selected for a reason, and we didn’t really need to contemplate why. We just needed to be grateful and seize the opportunity.
In thinking through that speech, I reflected on a lot of my own struggles and thoughts about what it meant to be a Terry Scholar. I think it was a co-processing moment. I was supposed to be delivering a message to them, but what really ended up happening was they helped me deliver a message to myself. I think it was a message that I tried to work through in all of those Self Evaluation Letters. This memory stands out to me because both people from the Foundation and my peers came up to me after I spoke and shared that it was resonant in some way. I treasure being asked to capture the spirit of the moment and doing so in a way that touched other people in the room. It also helped that Mr. Campbell approved of my speech.
That said, I also remember the first response to my Self Evaluation Letter. I exposed myself and talked about my struggles. If I remember correctly, Mr. Campbell responded, “You should join Toastmasters and work on public speaking.” Ultimately having the opportunity to give a speech at the end of my four years was a full-circle moment. I often reflect on the idea that my college experience would not have been what it was without the Terry Foundation. My best friends from college were Terrys. I think it was the reason I stayed at the University of Houston. It gave me a family in a way that is not the trite, hackneyed, “Oh we’re a family!” It’s a true community of people who are committed to a shared vision that was inspired and articulated by Mr. and Mrs. Terry.
Degrees of Success
I earned two degrees- a Bachelor’s in Political Science with a minor in Literature and a Bachelor’s in History with a minor in Philosophy. The plan when I started at UH was either medical school or law school, because I had been deeply into the sciences in high school. My sophomore year, I took a class with a professor in political theory, and that just changed everything. I ended up taking a course with her every semester until I graduated. I wrote my thesis with her. I did undergraduate research with her. I was pretty dead set on getting a PhD in political theory, and I wanted to go to a top ten program.
During this time, I had a chance encounter with the Dean of the Honors College.
He had just gotten off the phone with the Provost, who informed him that no one from UH had submitted an application to represent the university on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. It was the day of the deadline. I think Dean Monroe literally walked out of his office, saw me in the computer lab, and thought, “Oh! Krystafer might make a good candidate.” He asked me,“Do you have time to submit a five hundred word statement and an updated resume for this opportunity?”
I said, “Sure, that sounds great,” and I will never forget what Dean Monroe said.
He told me, “You shouldn’t worry about actually getting accepted. It would be great if you were, but these positions usually go to UT or TAMU students because they’re closest to Austin. Those are the flagship universities.”
You're Never Board in College
I submitted my application and forgot about it, until I got a letter saying that I had been nominated by the governor to serve on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. That was a two-year gubernatorial appointment that took me to the end of undergrad. I was getting experience in higher ed governance, and I went to meetings in Austin four times a year. The way it was framed to me, which I think was sort of horrible: “You’re the sole voice for over a million undergraduates in the state of Texas.”
I was the student representative on the Undergraduate Education Committee, which governs community colleges, four-year colleges, and medical centers and health science centers that have undergraduate degrees. It was a real opportunity to get insight into what a state agency or state bureaucracy does and what higher education governance looks like from the inside. That was a really interesting experience.
Ultimately, I got cold feet about the doctoral program- the thought of a five to eight year commitment was really overwhelming to me. At the same time, I found out about an opportunity with the Texas Legislature- a Hobby Fellowship. I was accepted and moved to Austin.
Teacher and Student
The experience in the Texas Legislature, my term on the Coordinating Board, and my parents being career educators led me to apply for Teach for America. I moved to Rhode Island. I was conditionally accepted to Brown University, but I knew I wanted to teach before I went. I taught fourth grade at a large elementary school in Providence. During my second and third year at that school, I also attended Brown part-time. I would teach, and then I would get in my car and drive to Brown- doing most of my school work on the weekends. It was a lot, but in the end I think it was a really good decision. It’s a cohort model, and generally you’d only have that cohort for one year, and it’s a small cohort- 20 people. As a part-time student, I got the benefit of essentially having two cohorts- double the network. I think my experience in the program was richer than people who went straight out of undergrad or people who were transitioning careers.
In the middle of my third year teaching in Providence, the Providence Public School District reached out to me and asked me about filling a vacant seat they had in the Office of Research, Planning, and Accountability. It was primarily a data analytics role with a little bit of policy work on the side. Although I loved my colleagues and students, that seemed like an opportunity to work with all of the schools in the district about using data better in their schools. I took the job, and I was there for about a year before receiving a call from the chief who would become my boss at State Department of Education. I did a consulting project in grad school, and he remembered my work and encouraged me to apply.
Policy in Providence
I was hired as a Transformation Specialist. The title is a a hold over from No Child Left Behind, but essentially, at the core, I work with superintendents, principals, and instruction leadership teams in 32 federally identified low-performing schools. My best days are days when I’m able to be in schools in classrooms; I started out as a classroom teacher. School improvement, which is how we categorize the work that I do, is people-driven work. You have to get to know people. You have to get to know context. You have to make them believe you’re there to help them. It’s not easy or fast work. I think you can encounter people who work in this space and believe that if you just change the systems, or you change the structures, or you use the federally identified turnaround models, that you’ll be able to turn the school around. However, most of what we’ve learned is that it actually is slow, methodical, long term, change work.
It’s been a steep and crazy trajectory. Three years in the classroom, a year in the district, and October 2017 made it a year at the state level.
Investing in People
There’s the story that everyone shares about Mr. and Mrs. Terry driving back from UT after they had been shown what their donations had built. I think, as the story goes, they asked, “Why are we investing in bricks and mortar when we could be investing in people?” For those Alumni who do people-oriented work, human-oriented work, there’s an even deeper resonance with the idea that if Mr. and Mrs. Terry wanted to invest in people, we too, should invest in people.