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Kayt Norris: Committed to Quality Education

Monday, February 3, 2014

Kayt Norris, A07, came to Tufts and Tisch College as a political junkie and left with a love of education that has guided her to a successful career.

Tufts alumna Kayt Norris with Teach for India staff

If you catch Kayt Norris, A07, in a particularly candid moment, she might admit that, even as a bright young student in her native Illinois, she wasn’t really excited about going to college.

“Before, I always thought that college was something you had to do before getting to what you really wanted to do,” says Norris. That changed her junior year of high school, when she went to a conference and wound up chatting with Richard Lerner, professor of child development at Tufts. As he talked to her about the University and, especially, about Tisch College, her notion of what college could be began to shift.

“He told me about Tisch College, and it was really the first time I had ever heard of a university that incorporated civic engagement and public service into the academic program,” says Norris. “The idea of studying while thinking of how to use what I’m learning and applying it to help underserved communities was really exciting.”

She adds, simply: “Tisch College is why I went to Tufts.”

Beyond boosting her enthusiasm for higher education and pointing her toward Tufts, Tisch College would go on to play a pivotal role in Norris’ personal and professional development. In particular, her experience as a Tisch Scholar working at a school in Boston’s Chinatown set her on a path that has led her to Mississippi, Missouri, India, Kenya, and back again as a teacher and administrator committed to a quality education for all.

Before falling in love with the classroom, Norris arrived at Tufts as a political junkie; not surprising for a young woman who had already spoken at the Democratic National Convention and, on a separate occasion, introduced Bill Clinton. During her first year on campus she got involved with both the Tufts Democrats and the Tufts Republicans. As a senior, the political science major was one of a handful of students trying to create the Tufts Institute for Political Citizenship (IPC), an initiative housed within Tisch College that has since evolved under the leadership of current students and now has a strong presence on campus.

Her Tisch Scholar project also grew out of that passion for politics. “The project started at Josiah Quincy Upper School with a program to get students excited about the 2004 presidential election,” through debates and other classroom activities, says Norris. “After the election people were still interested in debate, but there wasn’t really an outlet,” she adds.

Norris then reached out the Urban Debate League, a national organization of high school policy debate teams. With their support, she cofounded the Boston Debate League, coached the team from Josiah Quincy, and helped recruit other schools to the program. As she worked with more and more schools and students, Norris developed a greater appreciation for the education field, and was inspired by the dedicated teachers she saw all around her.

In particular, Norris remembers a group of lawyers who, mid-career, had traded the courtroom for the classroom. “I just had so much respect for these people who had an awakening in the middle of their lives and were willing to let go of their successful legal careers and comfortable salaries to do work in these schools,” she says.

After graduation, when it came time for Norris to decide what was important to her, the choice between joining a political campaign for the 2008 presidential election or joining Teach for America became something of a no-brainer. For the next three years, she taught in rural Mississippi and, later, in St. Louis. Norris then spent three years as a program manager in the Teach for India program.

As she moved from place to place and worked in starkly different communities, Norris benefited from the lessons in civic engagement she had learned as a Tisch Scholar. “Tisch College starts everything from a place of getting to know the community and identifying assets and challenges,” says Norris, whose adherence to these principles, she believes, has allowed her to be successful as a teacher and administrator.

Now, as Associate Director of Human Capital at Bridge International Academies, Norris recruits, selects, and trains principals for local private schools in Kenya. “We have over 240 academies, more than 80,000 students, and we’re getting ready to expand into Uganda and Nigeria,” she says. “One thing that really excites me about it is that not only are we providing quality education at an affordable price, but we’re also empowering communities.”

Norris sees herself working in the educational field for years to come. As she looks back on her time at Tufts, she is thankful that Tisch College led her toward this calling, for the many influential peers and mentors she encountered, and for the way it defined, in ways big and small, the person she has become.

“Tisch College was my Tufts experience, in a nutshell. I feel like the programs shaped the way that I viewed everything that I was experiencing and learning, and gave it a purpose.”