Jennifer Walters-Michalec (Fels '07)

December 13, 2013

By Kelliston McDowell, MPA '14

Currently Executive Director of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, alumna Jennifer Walters-Michalec ('07) highly values the skills she learned from her time at Fels.

"Fels provided me with the tools and confidence to succeed regardless of my professional path," said Walters-Michalec.

"Having been the first and only employee to work for the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, and having had no previous experience with philanthropy, I have relied heavily on the administrative and problem-solving skills I honed at Fels."

The crux of the foundation's domestic initiatives involves closing the US educational achievement gap. Projects have involved research and literature review of "what works" in education, multi-year seed funding for three KIPP elementary schools, and Teach for America support.

For six years, Walters-Michalec has headed up the major foundation co-founded by the famous filmmaker and his wife. The role has entailed her to be a jack-of-all-trades for the multifaceted organization.

Most recently, Walters-Michalec has helped guide publication of Shyamalan's recently-released book, I Got Schooled (Amazon). The author's inspiration for the book was born while he was scouting locations for a film in two Philadelphia public schools. Struck by the contrast between the two  schools -- one succeeding, the other failing -- he began investigating what successful US schools were doing to close the achievement gap.

Shyamalan's research took years, as he consulted with many leading education experts and visited various schools around the country – and Walters-Michalec was with him every step of the way. They found that the schools in poor neighborhoods closing the achievement gap were adhering to five key practices: retaining the best teachers; promoting instructional leadership; mandatory, frequent, and collaborative teacher feedback; reducing school size; and adding more time overall for schooling.

"It's always wonderful to see Fels alums doing great things and getting stuff done," said Fels Executive Director David Thornburgh. "The constant praise from both M. Night Shyamalan and his wife Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan demonstrate the degree to which Jennifer's hard work has made a positive impact."

Walters-Michalec's duties have included managing the grant-making organization's fiscal health, operation oversight, and strategic development. Alongside the foundation's board of directors, she helped the Shyamalan family create a framework for their giving and implemented the operational structure currently in use.

The foundation itself engages in a multitude of efforts aimed at supporting "remarkable leaders, through their organizations, working to remove the barriers created by poverty and inequality, which prevent individuals and communities from unleashing their full potential."

In developing countries, these efforts entail helping people meet basic human needs and increasing their access to educational opportunities. Some of the international grants have involved sustainable agriculture, education access for remote communities, and rainwater harvesting. One skills-training and livelihood program was a three-year commitment through the Clinton Global Initiative.

Prior to her tenure with the foundation, Walters-Michalec spent two years managing children's programming at Philabundance Food Bank. She also spent three years working in continuous quality and performance improvement for a local nonprofit healthcare provider.

Nonetheless, throughout her successful career, the hard skills she obtained from her time at Fels are not what she cherishes most. Walters-Michalec looks back fondly on the personal connections she made, and the significant impact they have had on her career.

"My time at Fels was a truly meaningful experience and it was the quality of the people that made it so memorable," she said. "Fels was able to create that delicate balance that so many institutions miss -- a combination of classroom learning, practical experience, but most importantly, an opportunity to engage with my peers."

"I can't tell you how often I have called up a former Fels classmate or professor for advice, and not surprisingly, they're always willing to do whatever they can to help," Walters-Michalec continued.

In a job that seeks the long-lasting betterment of the US and many developing nations, Fels has served as a strong foundation.

"The most important lifeline you have throughout your career comes from your relationships and not necessarily your knowledge base," said Walters-Michalec.

"If you can start to see your work in the context of your relationships with others as opposed to just the professional 'benchmarks' or 'achievements' you set for yourself, I think you can achieve more than you ever thought possible."

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Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
University of Pennsylvania
3814 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Phone: (215) 898-2600
Fax: (215) 746-2829