EPFP Alumni Stories
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Welcome to the EPFP Alumni Stories! Here we highlight the work of EPFP alumni around the country by featuring guest blog posts about our three pillars: Policy, Leadership, and Networking. For more information or to report abuse of this feature, please contact the EPFP national program staff at epfp@iel.org.

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Unaa' Holiness Talks Networking (MI EPFP '17-18)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Sunday, September 30, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Unaa’ Holiness

Human Resource Specialist Lansing School District

Unaa Holiness is an Alum of MI EPFP ’17-18. She currently serves as the Human Resources Specialist for the Lansing School District. Previously, Unaa’ Holiness served as Director of Telemarketing Services at Phone Bank Systems, Inc. She came from private sector fundraising.

New to Education Policy

When I submitted my application for EPFP, I was originally very nervous. Although I had done my research about the program, once I was selected I was doubtful of my ability to succeed in the program. The Fellowship was about a field that I was unfamiliar with and I was unsure on how my background would fit into the program. After I expressed the concern with my Coordinators, they assured me that they picked me because they were confident that I would be a good candidate.

I have worked at the Lansing School District for almost 4 years, but before that, I knew little about schools. EPFP gave me a broader understanding about the challenges teachers dealt with. It opened my eyes and showed me places where I could be more active, more understanding, and more vocal for my staff.

Throughout my experiences at EPFP, I feel that I was satisfied with my growth in each of the three pillars, however the networking portion of the experience has been the most memorable and significant to my personal and professional life.

New to Networking

Before EPFP I was terrified by the idea of networking. Although I am a very social person, I typically become more outgoing the longer I know someone.  In school I was that kid who hated group projects, and those feelings continued into adulthood.  Nevertheless, I still went in with an open mind. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me stronger.

I appreciated the actionable tips that forced us together and gave me skills to be a better networker. One of the best tips they gave me was how to start a conversation. I felt that starting a conversation was always the hardest part about meeting new people. I always wanted to talk to people but I wasn’t sure what to say.

I was able to use these skills at the Regional Leadership Forum, where 5 EPFP sites met together for a tour of Gettysburg Battlefield followed by a reception.  Typically in a large setting I would talk to the people I knew, but using the tools I learned at EPFP, I was challenged to break out of my comfort zone and began starting conversations with new people. My biggest trick would be to look at their name tag, which would include their position and probe them using the information I had. For example, if I met someone who works in a school I would began asking them about their job experience and look for ways to connect with them. Initially, I was shocked by my results. A simple switch in perspective really changed my view of networking. No longer did I think of networking as an annoying or uncomfortable task. It became more of an opportunity for me.

Unaa’s Tips and Tools Learned from EPFP

Another tool that I learned from EPFP was about joining conversations. I used to feel weird about adding my two cents into someone’s conversation, but after I jumped in and engaged I found that I was usually welcomed into the conversation. I also found that I had valuable knowledge to share with my peers.

These kinds of connections reinforced for myself how much knowledge I had to share and I still keep in contact with those people I’ve created connections with. My advice? If someone has something you could benefit from, don’t be afraid to ask them for coffee and pick their brain. At first, I believed that my network only existed in my field, but I have found that my network is larger and more diverse than I realized.

Top tips:

  • Use the information you have about someone as an opportunity to learn more about them. For example, you know that someone works as a teacher use this information to learn more about their role and find out if you have a similarity or some type of shared interest.
  • Never excluded people from your network, although you may know someone as a community member they may play a role in their professional life that you can partner with.
  • Be willing to make the initial conversation with a stranger because your next opportunity may come from that person.

Networking in Action

After my EPFP experience, I am still using the skills I learned. Recently, I attended a conference and my recent success at networking made me more confident in my abilities.  Additionally, I now have connections at the Michigan Department of Education so when I have a question about an application I can go farther than just reading the information online, I can call those contacts and ask the questions firsthand.

When it comes to policy, it can be kind of who you know in order to get your foot in the door. This year I met a state Congressman. I shared about my EPFP experience and he actually knew all about the program. He even invited me along to a meeting with him.

Networking is important for educational policy because if you don’t network, you limit your impact. It is important to know who to talk to or who oversees the area you’re advocating in so you can make an informed and collaborative difference.

In conclusion, networking is about mutual advantage. For every person you meet you open the door to access more opportunities. I’m grateful for my growth in networking from my EPFP experience. 



Tags:  alumni  networking 

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Robert Feirsen

Posted By National Coordinator, Tuesday, August 14, 2018
Updated: Monday, August 13, 2018

Robert Feirsen (NY EPFP '13-14)


Career Path & Education Policy
Robert Feirsen is the Director of the School of Leadership and Technology Program at NYIT. He provides an academic background with a focus on technology for aspiring school leaders at many levels. The program is unique in the organic approach to technology and its use as a strategic mechanism for conducting the work of schools.  Feirsen previously served as Superintendent of Garden City (N.Y.) Public Schools for 12 years, and has administrative leadership experience at the deputy superintendent, and school principal levels.

Education Philosophy
Throughout my career, I had overseen many aspects of the education process. These experiences have allowed me to analyze and identify barriers to success in the education process. Funding is at the forefront of the education policy matter. We have traditionally underfunded public state education, and we have not figured out how to balance the Equity=Excellence equation. In the future, I hope to see a country that is able to actualize and make a commitment the vision of equity with excellence in education nationally.

Gaps in understanding from the high school to college level pose a threat to the success of both institutions. Although the two institutions act as a continuum, there are tremendous gaps in understanding of what each party does. Not only do the two institutions not share the same vocabulary, their understanding of the policies and best practice is vastly different. Good conversation and collaboration between each institution will help us reduce these barriers and result in positive change for all. 

We have made strides in the advancement of neuropsychology and information about how people learn, remember, and apply knowledge. But we have not mastered implications of these understandings at the daily instructional level.  The most critical questions in education are: How can we be sure that students learn, and what assessment tools are used for measuring what they learn? As educators, we are fulfilling our goal if we can ensure that students can apply what they are learning. 

EPFP Experience and Value
The EPFP experience was a pivotal moment in my career. As a school leader, the press of day-to-day events often prevented me from looking at the big picture issues in education policy, but EPFP widened my lens.  EPFP enabled me to step back and assess the overarching education climate and fine tune my approach. 

Upon completion of the program, I was able to bring the knowledge I gained from EPFP to my job. Specifically, during a conversation with the Board of Education I was able to give recommendations of best practices I learned at EPFP for addressing policy. As a result, we created a legislative affairs committee where we could work collaboratively with other districts that felt similar education needs. Overall, the knowledge I gained from EPFP has been funneled upward and has positively impacted the scope of the work of the Board of Education, to the benefit of my staff and student community. 

Networking and Leadership 
Networking is a great part of the program, and I am grateful for the experience and the connections I made during the Fellowship. Sharing knowledge is one of the most important parts of the work I do. When I work with great people, I am privileged to know that I can teach them something and that someday they will be able to apply what they learned in their careers. EPFP has also empowered me to reflect on my leadership style and become a leader who is strong yet gracious. Our work is people-centered and when dealing with people it’s important to be helpful, compassionate, and empathetic. The people we serve are not data points. Each person we serve has a story and journey and our goal is to add quality experiences to their lives. I found that there was much value in the program. The information provided, connections made, and speakers were most significant to my experience. EPFP has illuminated that nobody does anything alone. We rely on other people, and that’s a great thing because the more voices we can get into the mix, the stronger and better our decisions will be.


Tags:  alumni 

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From Policy Project to Statewide Task Force Leader

Posted By Sarah McCann, Monday, January 8, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, December 20, 2017

 Jenna Masone

CT EPFP 16-17

Principal, Wolfpit Elementary School & Legislative Task Force Co-Chair

As I sat in the EPFP seminar one fall evening in 2016, the Connecticut Chapter Facilitator, Leslie Abbatiello, relayed a story about a determined citizen who worked for seven years to pass legislation designating a state polka song.  It struck me as a triumphant example of the potential impact one citizen could have, and inspired me to consider what I might be able to accomplish to positively impact my community.  

As part of the ten month program, fellows were charged with completing a project.  Left intentionally vague for our group of accomplished professionals, there were no parameters, deadlines, or grades.  What was presented was a simple invitation to engage in public service as related to education.  Diverse perspectives and areas of interest led all of us in different directions.  As the Principal of Wolfpit Elementary School in Norwalk and an avid swimmer most of my life, I was interested in public policy as related to water safety awareness.  Preliminary research revealed the rates of unintentional drowning for children ages birth to eighteen have remained relatively stagnant both nationally and locally for decades.  Drowning continues to be a leading cause of death in children.  Of note is the disproportionate representation of African American and Hispanic children that comprise two-thirds of all deaths.  In addition, ninety percent of deaths of children on the autism spectrum are due to unintentional drowning.  

There has been relatively little legislative response or public policy in Connecticut pertaining to the general issue of water safety awareness.  Given the number of preventable deaths and their profound impact on families, I was inspired to take action.  Though I had never heard of a legislative policy brief before EPFP, a quick internet search provided several templates and in two snow days’ time it was written.  I connected with the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children, and Seniors.  The Executive Director read the policy brief and was enthusiastic about raising awareness at the state level.  As a non-partisan arm of the general assembly, the commission arranged for a round table discussion and press conference with legislators from both sides of the aisle.  I connected with several family foundations and state agencies, and invited additional participants.  We followed with a press conference to announce the Governor’s declaration of May as Water Safety Month across the state.  

The participants’ interest in and commitment to the issue at the round table discussion was clear and broad-based. As a result, the Commission used its statutory capacity to create the Connecticut Commission on Women, Children, and Seniors Water Safety Awareness Legislative Task Force.  At the annual board meeting, I was appointed Co-Chair of the Task Force and charged with appointing members, developing a draft set of deliverable objectives, developing a schedule of meetings, and producing a year end report.  The Task Force is comprised of individuals representing the House, the Senate, the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Office of Early Childhood, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Public Safety, the YMCA, the American Red Cross, the American Association of Pediatrics, the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, Stew Leonard III Children's Charities, and the Zac Foundation.    

The Task Force serves as a forum for water safety awareness experts and legislators to exchange their expertise, and to take meaningful action on behalf of children.  The members’ collective efforts are evolving into a statewide response with the goal of reducing the number of unintentional drownings and hospitalizations.  The path is forged and the process has begun.  What started as a fleeting idea evolved into public action in less than one year.  The EPFP experience provided the foundation, the context, and the tools for me to initiate what I hope to have a profound, positive impact on children and families.

Tags:  alumni  leader  principal  public service  water safety 

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Eve Odiorne Sullivan (MA EPFP '12-13)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Monday, November 13, 2017
Updated: Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eve Sullivan is the Founder and Executive Director of Parents Forum and author of Where the Heart Listens


Parents Forum and Parent Peer Support

I founded Parents Forum with the purpose of raising individuals’ emotional awareness and improving their communications skills. I believe that our efforts to develop positive ways of expressing feelings and managing our internal and interpersonal conflicts are the core of good parenting and healthy family life.


We don't receive a lot of solid preparation or orientation for being a parent. There’s preparation for childbirth, which happens whether you are prepared or not. Once you have the baby, a lot of parenting training has been, and still is, focused on practical skills: what you need to know how to do. Now, though, there is growing emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL) in a child’s early development and how parents’ support for this enhances children’s intellectual achievement. It is great that SEL aspects of early childhood development are in the spotlight, but the focus is still on the child and on how parents can help their children.


The focus needs to shift toward parents. When parents are encouraged to seek help for themselves they can make positive changes that cascade to benefit the child and other family members.


Parents Forum grew out of my experiences getting help at a time when my kids were going through some typical adolescent experiences, that is, misbehaving! Some of it was pretty extreme, and I am thankful for the therapeutic community that helped my family, now two decades ago. I learned so much from the experience that I wanted to take it, teach it and now give it away. The key question is “How can one parent help another without putting that parent down?” I want Parents Forum resources and workshops to be accessible and available to other parents, but it’s a hard sell because raising children is so personal.


Cross-Boundary Leadership

My vision is, ultimately, cross-sector: I believe that all schools, faith communities and workplaces -- and youth sports organizations, too -- should routinely offer courses for parents. There should be classes for parents at every important stage that their child goes through and at every life transition they experience themselves. Both peer-led and professionally led programs can teach parents about developmental stages and age-appropriate expectations for their children’s behavior. Being an effective parent for a teenager is different from being an effective parent for a kindergartener, after all.


A cross-boundary leader needs to be willing to talk to and reach out to all kinds of people, and I like doing that. One example might be the prison workshops Parents Forum gave for several years. Of the men in the program, at MCI-Norfolk in Massachusetts, most had lost direct contact with their children, but they still carried their family experiences in their hearts. They welcomed the opportunity that we offered to share and, to some extent, heal their past suffering.


If we want to effectively access resources or share our own, we have to be willing to talk to all kinds of people. Be willing to strike up a conversation. I like the retail aspect of the work I do, helping just one parent in the moment, and I believe this is important. I learn something from each interaction about how – and sometimes about how not – to help someone else.


Parents’ needs change, and their skills need to change as well along the way. We need to normalize participation in such programs, so that parents say “Well, wait a minute, I need an orientation on how to be and what to do as a parent of a pre-teen or teen,” etc. Parenting education is still in its early stages, but we need to normalize both provision of and participation in parenting education programs.


Leadership Lessons Learned

Keep on keeping on and don’t be afraid to take that one next step. The one after will become apparent. Be ready to ask for help and to correct course when needed. I certainly did not anticipate, at the start, Parents Forum’s 25th anniversary this year. While we have only a few dollars in the bank -- I thought we would be bigger by now -- I’m very happy with the progress we have made and recognition we have achieved.


Developments in the past months have been significant for Parents Forum. We have a pilot group going in Winthrop and are working with pediatricians and with the superintendent of schools. I see that we need to aim higher in seeking community involvement. As important as grassroots work is, community leaders in various sectors need to be involved in advocacy for parenting education.


EPFP Experience and Value

EPFP was important for me professionally because I hadn’t done any graduate study since my Harvard MAT at the beginning of my teaching career. The program gave me a chance to re-engage with educators. I have done other programs and had teaching experiences that were not so rewarding as EPFP. A main advantage was being in a cohort of people from different fields. Our group included a nutritionist, principals, and an elected school committee member, as well as classroom teachers. EPFP gave me a welcome opportunity to connect or re-connect with people in the larger school community. To be in a cohort with other teachers was very useful for my professional goals as a parenting educator and a writer.


EPFP is relevant today because it is both accessible and focused. The program format gave me a chance to talk with a diverse group of people. Although I am ‘a one-issue candidate’ and was always beating the drum for parent engagement, I think that the others in the group appreciated the perspectives I brought to our discussions.


Parenting education is relatively new as a profession: teachers and administrators seldom hear from people in this field. I had the sense from my EPFP cohort that they welcomed the chance to step back from their daily experiences and connect about something real. What is more basic to the success of our common educational endeavors than students’ family experiences? Parents are the people who prepare young people for school and for life. When parents do a good job at home, teachers have a much greater chance of success in the classroom.


Additional Resources by Eve Sullivan

 Attached Thumbnails:

Tags:  alumni  parents  SEL 

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Cross-Boundary Leader: Ellie Wilson (MN EPFP '13-14)

Posted By Sarah McCann, Monday, October 9, 2017
Updated: Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ellie Wilson is an Education Specialist and Research Coordinator at the Institute on Community Integration located in the University of Minnesota. In this role she works on policy and program initiatives that support people with disabilities. She previously served as the Director of Education for the Autism Society of Minnesota, a state-based nonprofit organization committed to education, support, and advocacy designed to enhance the lives of those affected by autism from birth through retirement. She oversaw programming, training, and general education for individuals with special needs, their families, and community members. Wilson has more than ten years of experience working with children with special needs in various settings.


Disability and Quality of Services

At the Institute on Community Integration we’re thinking about the quality of life and therefore the quality of services that people receive in the community. Within ICI, the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Home and Community Based Services Outcome Measurement (RRTC-OM) focuses on how we think about the quality of services that are provided to people with disabilities, in their homes and in their work places. Many of these services are funded by government dollars, so there is a lot of public interest in the quality of their life. Past measures tended to focus on money spent on services, staffing ratio, and the movement of people from institutions to the community. It has become increasingly important to demonstrate the effectiveness of the services for persons with disabilities. You do think about personal outcomes, but the other part of quality is what happens in the aggregate and how we look at the quality of systems. There are a lot of issues that we talk about in disability policy that exactly mirror issues that we addressed in EPFP. For example, equity, policy transparency, and allocation of services. At ICI we talk a lot about system performance, such as funding and how we use data and data management to support policy.

RRTC-OM is funded by the National Institute for Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitative Research. Over the next five years the center’s job is to think about how we as a broad community define quality of life and then how we measure it. Even though I live in Minnesota and think about local issues, the center works nationally. Measuring quality is an interesting field that was new to me, but ties to my EPFP experience.

I jumped from a small but well-respected nonprofit organization to ICI. I loved that job and I continue to support their work, but I couldn’t turn down this opportunity to work with different leaders in the field of disability policy – whether that’s education, legal, human rights, or health policy. I’m still at the beginning of my career, so to work with these colleagues and develop a national network means a lot. EPFP had that same interdisciplinary and national lens so I think about it all the time.  


EPFP Experience

I came into EPFP because of another alum who went through the Minnesota program a few years before me. She described the program as being a place to surround yourself with intellectual conversation with well-rounded individuals. I felt that being involved in this type of group would inform the type of impact I wanted to make on the policy and communities I work with. It was a privilege to sit around a table with people who have such thoughtful perspectives and intelligence to contribute to the conversation.

What is so valuable about the EPFP process is that even though the core and fundamental ideas of the program were in education policies (which is important and tied to disability policy), when we were having our sessions in MN and in DC, we didn’t only approach a single policy but an approach to highly networked interdisciplinary collaborative efforts to all types of policy change. The natural effect is that even as you work in different areas, you can apply those experiences and lessons very broadly and I think that is unique to the professional programs out there.

Networking was also a big part of my EPFP experience. The Minnesota coordinators do an excellent job of connecting Fellows to people with all kinds of perspectives and careers, and it’s really inspiring to recognize all of those important players in your field. I come to DC all the time and I feel there are EPFP graduates everywhere.


Leadership Lessons Learned

The deeper I get into this work, the more I realize that leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, it’s more about effective coordination of the teams around you. I also think networking is one of the most important skills of a good leader. Successful leaders need to be inclined toward connecting and cooperating with as many potential or realized stakeholders as possible. While working among multiple stakeholders can also pose its own challenges, it leads to slow and steady progress and sustainability.

The most important lesson is the importance of laying groundwork early for strong relationships with those that could be allies in policy improvement and reform. Having the strong relationships early will make it a lot easier to try to plan out partnerships in the future. Sometimes you realize part way into a project or research that you can bring on a partner that would be effective or engage a new stakeholder. One thing I love about ICI is they’ve done a great job of creating a national advisory team before the research even began. It is the smartest way to do it, I can’t imagine doing it another way.


Cross-Boundary Leadership and Challenges

There is no single context in which policy is important to individuals and families with autism or other disabilities; they must navigate through housing, law enforcement, education, and employment sectors as does everyone. This naturally makes my work cross-boundary because we’re always working in so many contexts. The disability sector is unique because it crosses both disciplinary and partisan lines, which allows us the opportunity to engage people from across all spectrums who have a stake in this work.

The more work that I do advocating for local, state, and federal policy, one thing has become crystal clear to me. It is important and necessary to look at policy from an interdisciplinary, cross-leadership perspective. There is no way the hard work people do can advance to policy improvement and reform without the cooperation of folks from all types of fields. Even the work I am doing now, I am regularly in contact with all kinds of supporters who come from all kinds of fields. It is a challenge and a privilege to be able to work across that many disciplines with the same policy goal, but it is imperative to our success for anything we want to promote as our research progresses.

One of the biggest challenges is the juggling that comes with interdisciplinary cooperation and collaboration. Though that’s the way to succeed it also sometimes means that you have to consider the priorities and needs of people who are coming from different policy angles – for example, budgets, unifying message, infrastructure concerns. It can be difficult to create something that captures the priorities across all of those disciplines. But when you can do it effectively and collaboratively, even in the toughest political climate, you have a shot at making positive change. 

Tags:  alumni  disability  leadership  research 

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