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Lecture Series
October 14, 2022

At 2022 Volpe Lecture, Kvaal Discusses Creating a More Equitable and Inclusive Education System

“It’s important to celebrate schools that are doing things right. St. Francis College is doing things right. It’s one of the very best at helping people move ahead…ensuring accessibility, social mobility and a quality education.”

With this statement, Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education James Kvaal opened the 26th annual Thomas J. Volpe Lecture, held earlier this week at St. Francis College (SFC), where he addressed an audience comprising students, faculty, staff and alumni, along with invited counselors, teachers and administrators from area high schools.

The lecture, which took the form of a conversation with SFC’s president, Miguel Martinez-Saenz, touched upon many topics. Kvaal spoke about his upbringing (he grew up in the Boston area and attended public schools in Lexington), favorite academic subjects (social studies and history) and how much he enjoyed being part of his high school’s debate team, because it taught him to “see the world from different viewpoints.”

According to Kvaal, he knew early in life that he wanted to pursue a career in public service in order to “give back and do my part to let others have the same opportunities I had.” From his mother, who was active in town politics, he learned “which ideas get on the agenda, which ones get adopted and which don’t.”

At Stanford, Kvaal studied public policy, political science and statistics. After graduating from college, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he found mentors in some of the civil servants and elected officials with whom he worked. “From them,” Kvaal acknowledged, “I learned that it’s really important to have a sense of humility. Also, to communicate things clearly — what is the crux of your argument? — because it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

After eight years in the nation’s capital, Kvaal enrolled at Harvard Law School. During law school, he had the opportunity to work on John Edwards’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, helping to draft Edwards’ universal healthcare platform, elements of which were later incorporated in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

As Deputy Under Secretary at the Department of Education during the Obama administration, Kvaal led efforts to cut student loan monthly payments, hold for-profit colleges accountable for excessive debts, make community colleges tuition-free and address the issue of diminishing social mobility in the United States.

In his current position as Under Secretary of the Department of Education in the Biden administration, Kvaal continues to tackle these issues and others. One of the projects he is working on currently is simplifying the FAFSA form used to apply for financial aid for college or graduate school, something he believes will have a “tangible impact and affect a lot of people for the better.”

The animating principle that guides his work, Kvaal told the audience at the conclusion of this year’s Volpe Lecture, is creating a more equitable and inclusive education system, one that “works for everyone and propels them to achieve their goals,” adding that he is committed to “building the type of country we want to have.”

About the Volpe Lecture Series
Thomas J. Volpe, Chairman Emeritus of the SFC Board of Trustees, established his namesake lecture series at St. Francis College in 1997. The annual event brings to campus leaders from government, business, the arts and other fields. Past Volpe lecturers include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, NBC News journalist Andrea Mitchell and U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries.

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