For Ingrid Olea MPA 2020, a journey that started with a career change has led to remarkable achievements in education policymaking.
By Jacob Beizer
May 15, 2020
In 2018, Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, was coming to the end of her second term, and Ingrid Olea MPA 2020 was looking for the next destination in her career. Olea had been a staffer under Education Minister Adriana Delpiano and was tasked with overseeing a program to distribute laptops to 100,000 Chilean students annually. She helped draft legislative bills that eventually passed and assisted with the country’s rollout of tuition-free college. But her experience in government convinced her that she needed more training in the areas of policy implementation and negotiation.
“During the four years in the ministry I did learn a lot, but I encountered a lot of obstacles,” says Olea. “I never had a leadership position where I would have to, say, negotiate with teachers’ unions… I felt like I needed extra tools, extra training.”
Olea entered government having previously taught high school math and accounting. She originally studied information technology as an undergrad but decided to switch to education and signed up to teach with Enseña Chile (a Chilean program similar to the Teach for America organization). Olea learned that she loved teaching profoundly but felt she could make a bigger difference shaping education policy at the national level.
“I can do well as a teacher for 150 kids a year,” Olea reasoned. “Or I can take the leap to policy where you pass a bill and it affects hundreds of thousands of children.”
Her drive to understand, and positively influence, the inner workings of government brought Olea to Harvard Kennedy School in fall 2018. She took classes in negotiation, leadership, and education policy, while also serving as a teaching assistant for Matt Andrews, the Edward S. Mason Senior Lecturer in International Development. She also served as the MPA 2020 class representative to the Kennedy School Student Government. Among her favorite courses were “The Arts of Communication” with Tim McCarthy, adjunct lecturer in public policy, and “21st Century Global Feminisms,” taught by Zoe Marks, lecturer in public policy. Marks’ course, in particular, had a profound impact on Olea, even as it was forced to move online due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“I’m a teacher, so I love classes where I could see the professors… approaching the classroom as a learning community,” Olea says. She felt that she and her classmates became even closer as the pandemic disrupted their lives, and Marks’ course served as the place where they could come together.
Olea’s tenure at HKS was the first time she had lived outside Chile, and the experience was difficult at first, especially as a person for whom English is a second language. But by becoming an active participant in the HKS community, she found a support group among her peers, particularly in the Latin American Caucus and the Gender Policy Union. Olea says that beyond the activities that these groups engaged in, she will take away lifelong friendships.
“It amazes me how we come from so many different countries, but there’s still a shared culture and understanding of things,” Olea says, reflecting on her Kennedy School friendships. “My family the past two years was basically the Latino community.”
After graduation, Olea’s journey will continue to Paris, France, where she will work for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Her focus will be the Teaching and Learning International Survey, which the OECD performs every five years to assess the learning environments for students and teachers in member countries. It’s a challenge that aligns perfectly with her mission, to improve education policy on the broadest scale.