Twenty years ago, Emily Froimson left a career in law to work with nonprofits — specifically to improve educational opportunities for low- and middle-income students. It was a scary move, but it put her on the front lines of an issue about which she has become truly passionate, thanks in large part to her mother.
College was always in Emily’s future. Her mother was committed to ensuring that her children would go to the best colleges possible. They talked about college a great deal when she was a child.
But, as she entered her public high school, Emily didn’t hear much about college from others. There was little guidance and support offered to the students. It wouldn’t be a problem for her, thanks to her very involved parents, but she worried about her peers.
“That lack of guidance made me realize how difficult — or impossible — going to college can be for many first-generation students, and I believe having full access to educational opportunity is essential to realizing your full potential,” she said.
Emily is now president of Gateway to College National Network (GtCNN) in Portland, Oregon, a network of 40 college-based reengagement programs that support communities in building sustainable pathways for disconnected youth to a high school diploma and college credential. She also had a successful 10-year career with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Foundation Board of Trustees.
Through her work, she has touched the lives of countless in-need students across the nation. But it all began with a leap of faith in Phoenix, Arizona.
Emily received her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and her juris doctorate from Boston University School of Law. She was five years into a career as a corporate litigator when she realized it wasn’t the right fit.
“While I found my work interesting from time to time, I wasn’t passionate about it,” she said. “Having a stressful job is fine, but it can be miserable if you don’t like what you’re doing.”
Emily found herself spending more and more time volunteering with youth-serving organizations in Phoenix. And, in true full-circle fashion, she went back to her high school and created a college access program for low-income students.
Next, she got involved with Phoenix Youth at Risk, an organization that provides mentoring and after-school programs for high-risk teenagers that was, at that time, in sharp decline. In 1997, she left law and became executive director of the organization, charged with keeping the doors open. Today, Phoenix Youth at Risk is thriving, serving hundreds of vulnerable youth and their family members each year.
“I could, for the first time, see how real lives could be changed by the work I was doing,” she said.
Emily developed and taught courses in justice studies and research methods at Arizona State University for four years before joining the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation (JKCF) in 2005 as program manager of the Community College Transfer Initiative. This successful initiative aimed to increase access for low-income, high-achieving transfer students to highly selective four-year colleges and universities.
It also introduced her to Phi Theta Kappa.
“I think that initiative, along with the critical work of PTK, has really changed the discourse around who community college students are today,” she said. “The PTK students I have met are remarkable, driven, and passionate. They give me hope as we all face the challenges of the 21st century.”
Emily advanced at JKCF, eventually serving as vice president of programs before joining Gateway to College in 2015. The organization recently launched a community-wide initiative in Oregon focused on getting more youth who are in foster care, homeless, or in the juvenile justice system into and through college.
She has also become involved in women’s collective giving in Portland, where she’s part of an all-volunteer group that raises funds and gives grants to regional nonprofits.
Emily’s work in the challenging world of nonprofits has come down to knowing and leveraging her strengths. She has the passion, yes, but her true strength is making sure other organizations and educational institutions have what they need to do their best work to create educational pathways for students in need. It’s something she’s done successfully throughout her career.
“Certainly, if I look back on the last 30 years, taking the leap from corporate law to leading a very small nonprofit was both the most exhilarating and most terrifying thing I’ve done,” she said. “My initial foray into college access for low-income students was a way to acknowledge and honor my late mother, and the work has grown from there.”