When former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Prince DeVos ’79 describes her life and career path, she uses a metaphor she learned on a trip to Israel in 1999. The group was visiting the Northern Palace at Masada, a fortress built by Herod the Great overlooking the Dead Sea. As travel guide Ray Vander Laan led them down the steep snake path of the palace in the dark of night, each traveler carried a small flashlight to illuminate the way. DeVos remembers the treacherous descent well—the unfamiliar, rocky terrain, the tiny light held on a string, and Vander Laan’s words.
“He used it as a lesson to say, when you move forward, your light swings only to illuminate your next step. Nothing more. It’s not a highway light. It’s not a streetlight. It’s just that next step.”
DeVos says her own career unfolded step- by-step, much as the metaphor describes. As a first-year Calvin student, she planned to major in art and become an interior designer. Instead, she pursued majors in political science and business, “which turned out to be good fields of study for me,” DeVos says.
At Calvin, DeVos became politically involved, campaigning for Grand Rapids native President Gerald Ford during his 1976 run for a full term in office. DeVos cites that experience as “one of the things that sparked my interest in the political world.” She says certain professors also made an enormous impact on her career trajectory, including political science professor and Chairman of the Kent County Republican Party Paul Henry and physics professor Congressman Vern Ehlers. “I didn’t love physics,” DeVos smiles, “but I loved Vern.” A German minor DeVos also fondly remembers Professor Wally Bratt, who led her German interim abroad. “I really appreciated him. He—along with Paul and Vern—was very impactful.”
DeVos’ involvement in politics continued after she graduated. She served as the Kent County chairperson a few years after Henry. She also served as the Republican National Committeewoman for Michigan and the chair of the Michigan Republican Party for two terms.
DeVos’ interest in education advocacy grew after her own children started school and she saw the way income inequities limited families’ ability to choose the best education for their children. Over three decades, she founded and led education reform organizations and campaigns to support expanding charter schools and school choice, a concept she calls “education freedom.” She says her policy aim is to empower American families with more options to select where and how to educate their children.
Bringing this passion to her role as the eleventh U.S. Secretary of Education was a career highlight. DeVos took office in 2017 and describes the experience as something she “never anticipated doing.” After a challenging confirmation process, “taking the oath with my family was deeply meaningful and thrilling,” DeVos says.
Her Christian faith was “an absolute imperative” in Washington D.C., grounding her amid the many challenges she faced during her four years in office. “I don’t think I could have survived and navigated all of the issues and experiences in Washington without having a faith that became even more solid while I was there,” she says. That faith continues to inform the legacy of education reform she hopes to cement.
The path to forming that legacy, however, like the late-night trek at Masada, has not always been simple or clear. “I think about that experience often; so many of us get these 5, 10, 15-year plans in mind. And God laughs. And then we sometimes are disappointed or confronted with a different reality.”
To the next generation of leaders, DeVos offers this advice: “Continue to be open to what God has in mind for you, not what you think you have planned for yourself. And think for yourself. Look at problems and try to bring solutions forward rather than to just say, ‘This is impossible.’ Be a part of his hands and feet in the world.”