From economics major to public education advocate

Tuesday, June 7, 2016
A NAFIS staff photo including UNH alumna Jocelyn Bissonnette

Jocelyn Bissonnette '09, second from right, with her NAFIS colleagues, executive director Hilary Goldmann, director of information systems Lynn Watkins and director of communications Bryan Jernigan

When Jocelyn Bissonnette ’09 was graduating, the economy was in upheaval. It was not a good time to be entering the workforce.

Bissonnette, however, had a job waiting for her when she graduated from Paul College with a degree in economics — and seven years later, her work advocating for public education continues to inspire her.

Her commitment to making a difference started long before graduation, however.  During college, she taught a summer math course to students in Rhode Island through Breakthrough Providence and tutored elementary school students through Seacoast Reads.

UNH alumna Jocelyn Bissonnette at the Jefferson Memorial
Bissonnette in Washington, D.C.

It was in a classroom at UNH, Bissonnette explains, where she came to a realization that would shape her future career.

Professor Cliff Brown’s seminar on social mobility and social change marked “the first time I connected the volunteer work I was doing with policy — seeing what inequality looks like first-hand and recognizing there are systems in place that perpetuate it,” she explains.

Bissonnette knew she had found a calling — and it would lead her on her path to a career where she matches her personal and professional interests. Bissonnette works at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS) in Washington, D.C., and is the director of government relations.

There were other UNH moments, too, that Bissonnette says particularly prepared her for the work she does today, including her internship with The Washington Center and the support of its coordinator, Paula DiNardo of UNH’s advising and career center.

Bissonnette was able to intern at NAFIS through The Washington Center.

“Because of that internship, I was encouraged to apply for an opening at NAFIS,” she recalls. “I had a job lined up in D.C. before graduation. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have rewarding and meaningful work.”

As the director of government relations, Bissonnette is closely involved in NAFIS’s work to educate Congress on the importance of federal funding to meet the needs of public school students where federal property reduces the ability of school districts to raise local revenue, such as military installations and Native American reservations. 

And, she credits the mock trial program with professor Charles Putnam for helping her hone her public speaking and critical thinking abilities. “The experience taught me skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have developed,” she says.

Bissonnette with her mock trial teammates

Bissonnette was also busy outside the classroom during her undergraduate years at UNH. In addition to her volunteer commitments, she won numerous awards — including the Movers and Shakers Leadership Award, The Washington Center Civic Engagement Award, and a pair of Mock Trial awards — and spent much of the summer of 2008 in Armenia through Birthright Armenia.

“I’ve always felt this strong connection to my culture and heritage,” says Bissonnette, who is half-Armenian.

During her eight weeks in Armenia, she volunteered for a nonprofit and at an orphanage. She has since co-launched the alumni chapter of Birthright Armenia in Washington, D.C., and helped plan events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.

One of the most rewarding moments in her work so far?

Bissonnette describes the sequestration cuts of 2013 and the work of NAFIS and other groups to restore the programs that were lost.

“We were able to come together,” she recalls. “There were many important federal programs – K-12 and higher education — that had their funding restored.”

Bissonnette was honored last spring as a UNH Outstanding Recent Graduate. She volunteers as vice president of the Committee for Education Funding, a nonpartisan coalition of education associations and institutions that works to increase federal financial support across the education continuum, and she shows no signs of slowing down: She was recently accepted into Georgetown University’s master’s degree program in policy management.