Profile Plus - Fall 2017

Mr. International

Alumnus Justin van Fleet travels the globe to ensure no child is without an education

By Charles Schelle

Justin van Fleet ’02 wants to make sure every child in the world has access to education.

It’s a daunting undertaking that the LaVale, Md., native looks forward to resolving through his work with several agencies. He is the chief of staff for the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, director of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chief advisor to the charity Theirworld and advisory board member at the Global Business Coalition for Education.

It’s a full-circle journey for van Fleet, who participated in both the Model of Organization American States and the Model United Nations while at FSU.

Van Fleet earned his bachelor’s degree in international politics and Spanish foreign language and literature from FSU, a master’s degree at Harvard University in international education policy and his doctorate in the same field from University of Maryland, College Park. He lives in New York City, where his brother Ryan van Fleet ’04 resides and works as vice president of analytics for marketing and advertising firm Zenith.

Profile caught up with van Fleet to talk about his career and memories of Frostburg State.


Profile: Describe your role with the organizations you’re involved in dedicated to global education.

Justin van Fleet: The big challenge we’re faced with is this: across the globe, by 2030, the United Nations and international organizations have all come together to say, “We want to have every child and young person in school and learning.”

We’ve done some research showing that the current trends, in the absence of action, are really bad. By 2030, 825 million – more than half of the youth population – are going to be left behind. This is in developed countries and developing countries around the world. In many places, it’s very grim. That’s what we’ve set out to change.

There are a few organizations I primarily work with:

One is the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who serves for the Secretary-General. Our key objective is to go around the world and mobilize governments, communities and international organizations to take this issue seriously and to invest in and reform their education systems, ensuring they are reaching the most marginalized and vulnerable children so we can buck this trend.

Second is this International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. It’s chaired by Gordon Brown, and linked to his U.N. role. It was started by the Norwegian prime minister, the presidents of Chile, Indonesia and Malawi, and the Director-General of UNESCO.

The Commission brought together 25 world leaders and said, “What would it take to get to a place where children in low-income countries would get the same opportunities as children growing up in high-income countries? How do we make this happen?” We spent the past year putting together the commission report, “The Learning Generation.”

“The Learning Generation” actually shows it’s possible – not because it’s a pie-in-the-sky thinking – but there are very practical things that can be done in countries around the world to improve investment and reforms in education systems, and the international community can take steps to support these efforts, achieving the largest education expansion in human history. The report is a financing and reform blueprint and details the benefits of action and how a country can get from Point A to Point B. We’re now implementing these recommendations, including work to set up a new $10 billion funding stream.

This year, we’re taking our 25 world leaders on a road show, talking to presidents, prime ministers, education and finance ministers about why they should take the recommendations seriously and what investments they could make to help realize this vision.

I work with Sarah Brown, a campaigner for children in her own right. She has a charity called Theirworld, a children’s organization that campaigns to make the policy changes that seem out of reach a reality. What we achieve through the work at Theirworld impacts the lives of children across the globe.

I sit in an interesting space where I have the opportunity to understand the politics of “how to make change” alongside world leaders while at the same time working with various constituencies to mobilize for action: business community, youth and faith groups, non-profit organizations, civil society and the public. We want to create more awareness both in countries wanting to create more opportunity for children and through global institutions.


Profile: I take it you are good family friends with the Browns at this point.

JvF: It’s been a real pleasure to get to know the two of them throughout the years.  I first had the opportunity to work with them when I was at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education and they took interest in some of the new research we were producing at the Center.  I have been so inspired by their passion and drive, it’s hard to imagine working with anyone else more dedicated to making positive change in the world.


Profile: Why is global education access an important cause for you?

JvF: I grew up in LaVale, Md., and I always wanted to be an exchange student. My aunt and uncle had an exchange student from Spain when I was in fourth grade. I thought it was the coolest thing – somebody coming from a different country. Since then, I always wanted to travel to a new country and learn a new way of living.

I remember when I was in high school, at the age one could apply to be an exchange student through AFS.  The tuition cost was high and my family contributed what we could.  I held fundraisers and looked for scholarships, and even the local Rotary Club helped me. I was told at the time if I were to be more open-minded on the international exchange application, the likelihood of a scholarship would be greater. I remember putting an “X” through the country selection pages where I was supposed to rank the top countries I wanted to go to. I wrote “I will go anywhere in the world, I just really want to learn how to speak Spanish.”

I got an acceptance letter a few weeks later that said, “Congratulations, you’ve been matched with a family in Bolivia.” (Laughs) “Where’s Bolivia?” I thought. Here I was growing up in Western Maryland, about to live in Bolivia, a country I wasn’t even sure I could find on a map.

When I arrived, it was the first time I experienced extreme poverty – a degree of “haves” and “haves-nots” that I could never imagine. It really had an impact on me. The fact that I was able to go there and go to school, but in the same walk to school I would see people my age that were shining shoes in the streets and engaged in other forms of child labor. They never had the opportunity to see the inside of a classroom – they needed to work just so their families could make ends meet.

It really impacted me: the issue of human rights and the right to education. It stuck with me, and at the age of 16, I had no idea I could study it or even make it my professional career. I went to Frostburg and I did a lot of work in human rights through another study abroad program. I went to Argentina my sophomore year at FSU where I looked into human rights issues, which shaped where I was headed professionally.

After working for a year at a human rights organization in D.C., I remember I wanted to go to graduate school because I felt there was so much more I needed to learn about. I remember I Googled “Human Rights Master’s Education Program.” I clicked on the first search result and a paragraph came up describing a master’s program in international education policy. It was the first time I saw what I was interested in described in a way I could actually study it.


Profile: It’s interesting how each experience linked with the next.

JvF: I never sat down and imagined I would work for Gordon and Sarah Brown or I would work with the U.N. I just worked hard at each job, met new people working on interesting projects, found ways to collaborate and each step of my studies and career continued to build on the previous.


Profile: What are your biggest challenges in your various roles? How do you handle them?

JvF: (Laughs) There are a lot of challenges.

One of the biggest challenges we have is conflict and emergencies around the globe. If you look at the Syrian refugee crises where millions of children are displaced or living in new countries and have their education disrupted. On average, if you’re in a refugee, you will be out of school for about 17 years. Unless we are able to get education into these refugee and displacement situations, some of the most vulnerable young people are left without opportunity, left without hope and they become prey to all sorts of negative influences whether it be child labor, child trafficking or vulnerability to extremism. These are all things that are breeding due to lack of investment and prioritization of education.

The other challenge that I see is globally, is a trend of countries and people retreating to their national borders, thinking that each country can solve its own problems on a bilateral basis. There’s less of a sense that global challenges require global solutions. I find we’re constantly trying to convince people that we can’t solve some of these big challenges unless we work together. Everyone wants to go it alone with incremental projects, but if we work together to achieve big ideas, we can all benefit. It is in the best interest in the United States, European countries, and others to invest in basic rights of children across the globe. When children everywhere have rights and opportunities, they’re able to survive, thrive and become the next generation innovators, engineers and scientists. They can create jobs and new economies in their own communities. It lifts everybody up. It helps us. It helps them.

Making that argument is really difficult, particularly in the last few years as we have see the protectionist ideology coming back and a lack of intention to solve global challenges in a cooperative way.

We’re also trying to mobilize the financing needed to achieve these goals. It requires countries to invest more in their own education systems and for the international community to help those countries that are doing the best they can but still lack the resources they need.


Profile: During your travels, has there been a moment that impacted you witnessing what children face in other countries?

JvF: I can point to so many instances where I have seen the impacts of a lack of investment in education. The first trip I took in the UN, we went to Timor-Leste, and there was a severe lack of nutrition and investment in the early childhood years. Many young children grew up without nutritional needs. They were stunted and not growing at the rate they should – and not learning at the rate they should. So that was one of the challenges that needed to be addressed for these young people.  Another issue I remember is that children had to learn in a language that’s not their native language in the classroom. This led to very low learning rates.

Another example: a quarter of the population in Lebanon are Syrian refugees now. Imagine if an emergency took place and overnight we had a 25 percent increase in the U.S. population of people fleeing war. It’s an astronomical proportion. The country is double shifting the schools there so Lebanese children go in the morning and then Syrians can go in the afternoon. Just meeting some of the parents and children, hearing their stories of what they’ve been through is really sad. They’re young people who want to make something of themselves and we have to give them that opportunity. And this was a program that was making a difference in their lives.

When I have the opportunity to go on these visits, it makes on feel the need to do something. Education is the key, and without that it’s going to be really difficult to create a change in the world. I’m constantly inspired by the people I meet and the programs that organizations and governments are running that show it’s possible to make education for all a reality, even in the toughest situations.


Profile: Where do you see the greatest success with how the private sector commits money or resources with what you’re trying to accomplish?

JvF: The Global Business Coalition for Education, under the leadership of Sarah Brown, came out of some of the research I was doing with my Ph.D., at College Park and at The Brookings Institution. We saw companies were not contributing in education the same way they do in health and other social sectors.

For instance, U.S. Fortune 500 companies donated and invested 16 times more money in global health as they do global education. Sarah founded the GBC-Education with the idea of bringing in like-minded companies together that wanted to invest in young people. It’s a nice thing to do -- to invest in young people’s education -- but there’s also a business rationale. Businesses can benefit from marketing and PR of making social investments, but they are also helping to create a generation of young people who can be fit for the labor market. They could get jobs, buy goods and services from a company or actually work for a particular company.

We’ve seen a lot of success in making the business case. We have over 100 companies that have joined the coalition doing everything from looking at their policies and what they do to be a family-friendly, pro-education company to how they can use their employee skills, knowledge, products, technology and services to spread quality education across the globe.

We have one program that HP has started for Syrian refugees by building tech hubs that train Syrian refugees and provide them skills for employment. It’s really cool, and just one example of many different companies that have been working with us to make a difference.


Profile: What do you remember about your experience at FSU, participating in the Model OAS and the associated course?

JvF: Each week we would spend time learning about a specific issue, a new country, policy and diplomacy – and then be challenged to come up with a resolution to propose with the intention of solving a problem or challenge in the region.  

I’ll never forget, I would prepare a resolution all week for my class as homework, and Dr. Joan Serafin Andorfer would sort of rip it apart each week!  It would come back with red marks all over it – and I’d keep reworking it and reworking it.  

By the time I got to the Washington Model OAS, I knew what I was doing, but I was also terrified. I can’t tell you how I terrified I was. I look back about 20 years later, and I feel much less intimidated by speaking to a group of 20-year olds. But to be honest, that experience prepared me to work in policy today.

At the time, to have to get up in front of a group, give a presentation on something I had to come up with, defend it and go around and try to get support for it, really pushed me out there and beyond my comfort zone.

But the friendships I made through that process, the opportunity to interact with people on a professional level, to meet people from the U.S. or abroad and learn about their country – it opens up so much more than the academic part of learning, but help to develop social skills and cultural appreciation.

There are people from that experience that I’m still in touch with today.


Profile: Dr. Andorfer described you as a great organizer while at the OAS. Was that one of your strengths to get through that experience?

JvF: I don’t know if I was born with it, but I definitely learned those skills through the Model OAS program and working with Dr. Andorfer directly as well. I was her work study student for a couple years. Through that process, working with her seeing how you run major global events is really how I learned so much about organizing and I apply that to the work I’m doing today.

There’s a big G20 summit coming up in Germany. We’re trying to get all the G20 countries on board to support education. It’s interesting. It’s a very similar set of skills I can trace back to that experience. It’s diplomacy. You’ve got to ring up people, explain your proposal, understand their concerns, work with them for a solution and try to get them on board, and build consensus for language in a final document. It’s very much the Model OAS experience in real life.


Profile: How did your experience at FSU shape you as a person?

JvF: It really gave me the personal attention that I needed to get to the next level academically. Being able to work with professors whose doors were always opened, have small classes, and a close community all were things that helped me develop academically.

The experience is really what you make of it in a lot of ways. You have to take advantage of the different opportunities. They’re all there.

Initially I thought I’d go to FSU for two years and transfer to somewhere else because I grew up in LaVale and didn’t want to go to school so close to home. But I felt at home at FSU and enjoyed what I was learning, who I was learning with and the faculty. It was a very supportive environment and is what I needed at that age.

If I had gone to a bigger university, I would have felt swallowed up.


Profile: Did anyone at the University leave with you with any profound advice?

JvF: One of the things I always remember from Father Ed Hendricks is “With your career, do whatever is the right and interesting thing to do; do what makes you happy. Don’t worry about money. All of that stuff will follow and work out. Do what feels like the right direction.”

I think this was about the time I was trying to decide whether to go to graduate school.  With Harvard, it was a leap of faith, but it was a huge opportunity that I had to take up and couldn’t let it pass by.


Profile: What set you up for success at FSU for you to be able to earn your master’s degree at Harvard and doctorate at University of Maryland, College Park?

JvF: I honestly have no idea. (Laughs) I always wondered how that actually happened.

I really think part of it was the sense of self-confidence coming out of Frostburg. But more than that, being taught to be curious and to follow my instincts.


Profile: Would you have been able have these experiences without your time at Frostburg?

JvF: The thing about Frostburg is it is what you make of it in a lot of ways. Everything is there. Having the right faculty to take you there and having the flexibility to, in a way, set up your own program of study with the electives and study abroad options. I was able to set up a learning experience that was really meaningful.

Having the flexibility and support structure at a small university helped set me up for success professionally and academically.


Profile: Your brother Ryan van Fleet also graduated from FSU. How was that having your brother at FSU, then reconvening in New York City after going your own ways professionally?

JvF: It was really great. We ended up having a lot of the same friends even though we’re two years apart. We both went different ways after FSU. He went to New York University and moved to New York City, and I went to Washington, D.C., then Boston, then ended up in New York.

To this day, we have a group of friends that we met at Frostburg here in the city. We have a similar friend group that traces back to Bobcats.


Profile: Anything you’d like to share with fellow alumni?

JvF: Find ways to give back to the university. When I look back, FSU was something that gave so much to me. I make an annual donation, and it’s not like I give a huge sum of money, but it’s a little bit I can do to help out. I encourage others to do the same.

I’d love to find ways of ways to engage with the Frostburg community where alumni can get more involved with students coming in the pipeline within their majors. It was also a great experience to mentor somebody who came through the program, who worked for me recently. Having more opportunities to engage with students would be great. We all have a duty and an obligation to give back given what was invested in us at the university.


Follow Justin van Fleet on Twitter @justinvanfleet.

headshot of Justin Vanfleet

Dr. Justin van Fleet '02