Q&A with Gillian Walsh, Program Coordinator for MIT ReACT and the Digital Credentials Consortium

MITili Staff
GW Headshot

Gillian Walsh is the Program Coordinator for the MIT Refugee Action Hub (ReACT) and the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC). Her work focuses on the design, implementation and evaluation of academic programming and technologies that promote equitable pathways for meaningful careers for learners across the world, particularly those from vulnerable communities. 

Prior to working at MIT, she worked in admissions and sponsored programming support at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University. She spent two years in Shanghai, China, teaching English, studying Mandarin Chinese and traveling across East Asia. Gillian holds a BA in History from Kent State University and a Masters in International Higher Education and Intercultural Relations from Lesley University.

Tell us a little about your time teaching abroad, and how that experience has helped in your current role. 

I taught ESL at a bilingual IB Preschool primarily but also worked with teenagers applying to international schools and colleges in the US and taught business English to adults at an engineering company. Teaching Pre-K was one of the most challenging yet fun and joyful experiences of my life. At the beginning of the year, the students were just 2 years old, barely spoke their first language and were very scared of the foreign teacher. Every morning when their parents dropped them off, all 18 of them would start bawling all at once! By the end of the year, it was me who was ugly crying, saying goodbye after they had become so precious to me.

I had to collaborate on lesson plans and schedules everyday with my Chinese co-teacher Zoe. Until then, I had never met a person as stubborn as myself! It was a true test of cross-cultural communication, patience, and understanding. But ultimately, we worked through these challenges and created a friendship that I still cherish. I would advise anyone who lives or works abroad to make a strong effort to learn the language of the host country. Zoe was fluent in English, but once I was able to communicate with her in Mandarin, I came to know her and my other colleagues and friends in China on a much deeper level, enabling us to work together better. 

Both MIT ReACT and DCC bring together individuals and communities from across the world with ReACT serving learners from primarily the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, and DCC convening institutions in North America and Europe. My experience living in China, a place with cultural expectations, communication and work styles very different from that of the West has caused me to approach intercultural collaborations with curiosity and an open mind, pausing to consider how a particular idea may be perceived through the lens of another’s culture or lived experience.   

What initially drew you to working with the ReACT program and what impact has the program had on affected areas? 

When I joined Open Learning in 2018, ReACT was a small program serving Palestinian and Syrian refugees living in Jordan. I had studied Arabic for several years during my undergrad and was eager to see if I could apply it to work at OL. As it turns out, I was far too rusty. However, when I was able to see how transformative OL resources like MITx, OCW, and MIT Bootcamps could be for these communities, who had all the brains and motivation of MIT students but just needed the networks of support, I was determined to see that the program continued to thrive. Since then, ReACT has expanded, offering entirely virtual programming to refugees, migrants, and low income learners wherever they live, whether that’s Europe, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, or Colombia. Everyday I feel gratitude for the opportunity to connect with talented individuals who, in spite of the barriers they face, challenges which few in the world can comprehend, are not only brilliant programmers and data scientists but are the leaders and changemakers we need in this world to make it a better, more equitable place.  

Switching gears, can you tell us a little about the Digital Credential Consortium and why it’s important? 

For one, while the world continues to become more and more digital and technological advanced, the ways in which we issue and verify academic credentials is still in the Stone Age. Who among us has not been frustrated by having to call up your university from a decade ago to pay a fee in order to get a transcript of your own achievement? And then to have it authenticated by an unknown powerful entity with an old-fashioned stamp?

On a more serious note, the ways in which we learn and acquire the skills that make us employable are changing. With the popularity (or necessity in the case of the pandemic!) of MOOCs and other online certifications or non-traditional forms of learning, we are discovering that we as learners have the potential to curate our own skill sets towards achieving a desired career. Digital credentials can enable you to store your Bachelor’s degree, TEFL certificate, cake decorating class achievement etc. on your own device and share them in a way that a potential employer or academic institution can trust. 

This is particularly relevant for those who have not had the opportunity to pursue higher education through traditional means. The pathway of obtaining a 4-year degree, perhaps followed by an unpaid internship and then an entry level job is possible only for a privileged minority. Alternatively, with digital credentialing technology, learners could share the skills they learned from, say, an incomplete university program in Computer Science, complemented by an online course in Python, a Bootcamp completion certificate, and have a better chance of obtaining meaningful employment. The DCC recognizes the potential value of digital credentials to promote equitable learning and employment pathways and is working with a broad network to ensure it does so. 

What advice would you have for someone looking for a position in higher education who was also passionate about education and helping people?   

I would reflect on the idea of what is truly “helpful.” We know that open education resources have the potential to be transformative, but it is important to consider whether an intervention or learning tool is truly promoting long term well-being and meaningful livelihoods for learners and reaching its full potential in all communities.  

What is your favorite thing about MIT?

I appreciate the ways in which MIT is consistently seeking ways to leverage its convening power, share its innovative and entrepreneurial spirit and make high quality learning experiences accessible to anyone, anywhere. 

Also, I love that it is cool to be weird here :)