Jason Cottrell, Ph.D.: “Education is a communal act”

School of Education alum encourages students to consider a career in public service.

Outdoor headshot of VCU SOE alum Jason Cottrell in Washington, D.C.
Jason Cottrell (M.Ed. ‘02) is a lead research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Postsecondary Education. (Courtesy Photo)

Jason Cottrell, Ph.D. (M.Ed. ‘02) earned his M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision from the VCU School of Education. Since 2016, he has served as lead research analyst in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education. We caught up with Cottrell recently to learn more about his experiences at VCU and his thoughts on the value of a career in public service.

What drew you to the field of education?

As an undergraduate student at VCU, I had the opportunity to hold a Federal Work Study position with First-Year Student Services, which led to becoming an orientation leader. My supervisors at the time, Rob Aaron and Shajuana Isom-Payne, were instrumental in encouraging me to think about my career. Those experiences led me to consider a career in higher education and student affairs.

During my first semester in my master’s program, the world changed due to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. I developed an interest in public service and felt a strong connection to education and public service as a career. I knew that I wanted to explore education beyond being a practitioner. I gained experiences on campus, furthered my education, and ultimately applied for a position as a civil servant.

Did anyone inspire you to pursue study in this field?

As a higher education professional, I have had the opportunity to solidify my areas of interest by having instructors who have guided me along the way. I have also developed professional relationships over the last 20 years. There are folks who I know I can easily email or call to ask questions or seek guidance. That is what is great about education; most folks really want to see transformation coming from their peers. That means supporting and mentoring folks in as many ways as possible. Education is a communal act.

“I think the VCU School of Education benefits from having faculty and staff who understand the realities of today’s students.”

Why did you pick VCU SOE to pursue your master's degree?

I was working at VCU’s Office of Financial Aid. I wanted to stay in Richmond. The program was fantastic because they were willing to work with my schedule, and they really valued my experience. Most of my classmates were folks who wanted to be principals and superintendents (and are now). I was unique in pursuing postsecondary education as a career, but learning from them helped to shape my understanding of the K-16 world. It was great to look at postsecondary education through the lens of K-12 professionals.

Any tips for students who are considering pursuing a master's degree at VCU SOE?

I think the VCU School of Education benefits from having faculty and staff who understand the realities of today’s students. With the School of Education, many of the faculty were teachers and/or administrators. They want to see you succeed because they understand the importance of having great educators in all settings.

What do you find most rewarding about your current job?

I work with our nation’s Titles III, V, and VII institutions of higher education. These are our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and low-income serving institutions (SIP). I conduct the process to designate institutions as federally eligible for these grant programs, which impacts funding, status and opportunities to increase their capacity to serve students who are underrepresented in postsecondary education.

Federal service is one of the biggest honors of my life. It truly is a great chance to give back to my country for providing me with opportunities to go to school, to earn my degrees, and to do so as a first-generation college student.

In terms of postsecondary, higher education, or student affairs, we need more folks who are committed to this public service. Working in higher education and student affairs really does change the world. You literally have an impact on every profession and on those professions’ leaders.