When Providence, Rhode Island, native Xilian Sansoucy moved from private to public school in ninth grade, she noticed stark differences. She liked that her public school had a more diverse student body reflective of Providence’s population. But it also had outdated technology, buildings in disrepair, and a curriculum that (unlike her private-school education) was driven entirely by state tests every senior had to pass to graduate.
She knew she had to do something to help fix the disparate experiences. “It’s [an issue] that gets me fired up, because education is the most important investment we make in young people,” says Sansoucy, a fifth-year student at Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.
In high school, Sansoucy joined the statewide nonprofit Young Voices, in which she and peers developed and pushed for public-school reforms. At the top of the list: the state tests. Because they were graded on a curve, some seniors always failed and could not graduate, even if the rest of their academic work was strong. The normally shy Sansoucy became more assertive as she met with local leaders and testified at city and state legislative hearings. In her fourth and final year with Young Voices, the state announced it would suspend one of the test mandates.
The work and its victory “made me feel alive. Everything I’d learned up to that point about my own education I was using to help others.”
When Sansoucy arrived at Northeastern in 2017, she wanted to pursue a business degree but continue to learn about education—this time as a teacher instead of an activist. So she joined Jumpstart, a nationwide nonprofit that offers language, literacy, and social-emotional programming to preschoolers in underserved neighborhoods. Three days a week for two years, Sansoucy led a team of five college students as they taught 20 three- and four-year-olds in Roxbury, a neighborhood near Northeastern’s Boston campus.
One memory that stands out is trying to explain an abstract idea to her students. “We were reading a book on reflections in water, and no child understood what it was. So we came up with different ways to explain it: ‘You see your reflection in a puddle, you see your reflection in a mirror. When you move, your reflection moves.’ I wasn’t sure they’d get it, but a week later, one boy was looking in the mirror and said, ‘That’s my reflection!’ And other kids started gathering around and said the same thing.”
The experience showed her that creativity and persistence in teaching can lead to steady and meaningful progress.
Pushing for change
Traveling abroad led Sansoucy to other discoveries about education. Through personal travel and Northeastern study-abroad and Dialogue of Civilization programs, she’s visited 15 countries ranging from Cambodia to Singapore, often asking residents and small business owners about their education. In India, for example, she spent a day at Prerna Girls School that was founded by social entrepreneur Urvashi Sahni to give girls from poor, remote areas access to education. The curriculum delved into challenging subjects like religious differences and systemic racism.
“I got to spend a day with these girls and they were so bright,” Sansoucy says. “Many had to commute up to two hours to get to the school and their eagerness to learn surpassed anything I’d seen. It was powerful.”
When it came time for Sansoucy to do co-ops, Northeastern’s signature program in which students work for employers full-time for six-month periods, she wanted to see if business and technology could improve education. So she earned a spot at her top-choice co-op: edX, a Cambridge-based nonprofit whose mission is to revolutionize and democratize education. It offers thousands of programs and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), all developed and taught by prestigious universities and leading corporations.
The idea behind edX is that learners of any age and geography, even those in underserved areas, can receive a good education with only an Internet connection. Sansoucy works on the enterprise marketing team, helping companies and small colleges build meaningful but affordable curricula for their employees and students. MOOCs allow learners with challenging circumstances (like full-time jobs or children to care for) the flexibility to learn when schedules permit. “It’s inspiring to see the stories from our customers—how people in regions from Nepal to Nigeria, who might not have access to a classroom, can still take courses from high-caliber institutions,” she says.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to fully or partially close schools, Sansoucy says the need for education innovation is more urgent than ever. She plans to work in the ed-tech space after graduating in fall 2021—and credits Northeastern with enabling her to delve deeper into a cause she first took up in high school.
“I’ve gotten a chance to see education from different perspectives—advocacy, teaching, technology, business—that people my age don’t usually experience,” she says. “I know I want to be a part of this movement.”