Rural Ed Equity Summit Speakers


headshot of Michael McShane, an enthusiastic looking man with short peppered hair, facial hair, and glasses.

Director of National Research at EdChoice

Dr. Michael McShane is the author, editor, co-author, or co-editor eleven books on education policy, including his most recent Hybrid Homeschooling: A Guide to the Future of Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2021). He is currently an opinion contributor to Forbes, and his analyses and commentary have been published widely in the media, including in USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. He has also been featured in education-specific outlets such as Teachers College Record, Education Week, Phi Delta Kappan, and Education Next. In addition to authoring numerous white papers, McShane has had academic work published in Education Finance and Policy, The Handbook of Education Politics and Policy, and the Journal of School Choice. A former high school teacher, he earned a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Arkansas, an M.Ed. from the University of Notre Dame, and a B.A. in English from St. Louis University. He is also an adjunct fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


Ben Erwin

Headshot of Ben Erwin. He is a youthful smiling man.

Senior Policy Analyst, Education Commission of the States

As a senior policy analyst, Ben works on tracking legislation, answering information requests and contributing to other Policy Team projects. Ben has worked extensively on school choice and teacher issues, as well as graduation requirements, accountability and innovation. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, he taught high school social studies in Kentucky and worked in education policy at the National Conference of State Legislatures. He earned a master’s degree in education policy from the University of Colorado Boulder and a bachelor’s degree in history and education from Transylvania University.


Tyra Esparaza

headshot of Tyra Esperaza. she is a dark haired smiling woman.

Assistant Director of TRIO Talent Search, University of Arkansas

Tyra Esparza is an Assistant Director with the University of Arkansas TRIO Talent Search program located in Fayetteville, AR. She has worked with UA TRIO Talent Search programs for the past four years and as a first-generation college student herself, she understands the unique challenges that students face and is passionate about breaking down barriers and creating initiatives that support their post-secondary educational goals. Before working with the UA TRIO Talent Search program, she worked with adolescents with substance use disorders and with children in the Arkansas foster care system. While completing her Masters in Counselor Education with a focus in Rehabilitation Counseling from the University of Arkansas, she worked with individuals with disabilities in aiding them with entering and returning into the workforce.


Evelyn Fuller

headshot of Evelyn Fuller, a smiling lady with short dark hair.

Director of College Project / University Access Talent Search, University of Arkansas 

Evelyn Fuller is Director of College Project/University Access Talent Search programs at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR. Having started with the initial Talent Search grant in 1991 designed to assist students in overcoming economic, social, academic, and cultural barriers to higher education, Evelyn has years of experience working with high school students. Previously, she worked with the Academic Development Office on the UA campus assisting college students with additional services to make them successful in their degree attainment. As a first-generation college student and child of an immigrant parent, Evelyn understands the need for these students to have additional support and services while working towards postsecondary degree attainment. Evelyn has a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology and Master’s in Human and Environmental Science from the University of Arkansas.


Kari hanks

headshot of Kari Hanks, a blond lady with a big smile.

Director of Programs, rootEd Missouri

I have served in education for over 20 years. I have been a high school educator, an adjunct instructor at a community college, and a Regional Director with rootEd Missouri prior to my current role. I am committed to helping rural Missouri students find opportunities to ensure they are on a path to success after high school.


Leigh Kolb

headshot of leigh kolb, a person with curly blond hair and glasses

Associate Professor of English, East Central College

Leigh Kellmann Kolb has been organizing the ECC Film and Lecture Series since 2014. The series brings documentaries, narrative films, scholars, authors, journalists, and poets to campus throughout the year. The series features events that are programmed with a focus on social justice and cultural inclusion. Her writing about film and television has appeared in numerous books, magazines, and online publications. She serves as a screener and juror for film festivals such as the True/False Film Festival, St. Louis International Film Festival, and the Riverside Short Film Festival.


Kristie Larson

a headshot of Kristie Larson, a woman with short cropped brown hair.

Strategic Relationship Manager, The DeBruce Foundation

Kristie Larson is the Strategic Relationship Manager of The DeBruce Foundation where her focus is on developing strategic, innovative partnerships with stakeholders across the nation. Kristie served nine years as the Director of Education for the American Royal Association in Kansas City, Missouri. In this role, she oversaw the association’s agriculture education programs, outreach initiatives, and scholarships. Kristie currently serves as the association’s Affiliate and Special Events Coordinator and as the curator of the American Royal Museum. Kristie has dedicated her professional career to the advancement of agriculture education through work in a variety of industry segments- non-profit, government, and corporate organizations including the National Pork Board, Iowa Agricultural Development Authority, Heritage Trading Company, and Dairy Farmers of America. Kristie has volunteered on boards including the Missouri Agriculture Foundation, Mizzou CAFNR Alumni Board, Mizzou Alumni Board of Kansas City, the Epsilon Mu Chapter of Sigma Kappa Housing Corporation Board, and the Visitation School Ministry Team. Kristie has a BS in Agriculture Education and a minor in Agriculture Economics from the University of Missouri.


Dr. Matt Newlin

Headshot of Matt Newlin, a man with a clean shaven head and a beard

Founder and Principal, Matt Newlin Consulting

Dr. Newlin has over 17 years’ experience in higher education and college access. He has served as the inaugural Director of Rural Initiatives at College Advising Corps where his work focused on increasing postsecondary enrollment for rural students in Missouri. As a consultant, he has worked with Harvard’s National Center for Rural Education Research to increase college and workforce preparation for rural students in New York and Ohio. He has served on the Leadership Team for the NACAC Rural and Small-Town Special Interest Group and is a cofounder of RuralTogether, a national community of practitioners working to improve rural equity in postsecondary spaces. Finally, Dr. Newlin is the creator and host of the Rural College Student Experience podcast which focuses on centering and elevating voices of rural students in college.


Jennifer Thomsen

Principal Consultant, Education Commission of the States

Jennifer is a Principal Consultant at Education Commission of the States. In this role she provides nonpartisan research and analysis on a diverse set of state-level education issues, spanning early learning through postsecondary and the workforce. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Jennifer worked as a nonpartisan staffer for the Colorado General Assembly. Jennifer is dedicated to providing state leaders with high-quality research that supports them in crafting policies that have a positive impact on all students’ lives.


Vicki Weaver

Headshot of Vicki Weaver, she is a blonde woman with glasses

Curator of Education, Daum Museum

Vicki Weaver, Daum Museum curator of education, received a BS in art education and a BFA from Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville, and an MFA from the University of Arizona, Tempe. She has worked at the Daum since 2000, and her position includes oversight of the museum’s education program. Weaver was named Museum Art Educator of the Year by the Missouri Arts Educator Association in 2008 and has served on the Missouri Arts Council Advisory Panel for Arts Education. She has completed level three professional development training in Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) and is a certified VTS lead trainer. Weaver has attended both in-person and online institutes and workshops with emphasis on advanced VTS training, VTS and studio art forum, lead teacher training, VTS and aesthetic thinking workshop, as well as various summer institutes. Weaver is and has been introducing VTS to Daum visitors and educators in central Missouri since 2009 by leading and co-leading VTS trainings for area elementary through community college level instructors


Tocarra Williams

headshot of tocarra williams, a person with long brown hair and glasses.

Assistant Director of TRIO Student Support Services, North Central Missouri College

Tocarra Williams, a proud first-generation college graduate from rural northern Missouri, is currently the Assistant Director of TRIO Student Support Services at North Central Missouri College (NCMC) in Trenton. With nearly ten years of experience at NCMC, she focuses on improving graduation and transfer rates for low-income and first-generation students. Previously, she worked for Missouri Children’s Division, collaborating with families and service providers to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect. Ms. Williams obtained her first college degree from NCMC as a teen mom almost two decades ago. Her personal and professional experiences drive her dedication to fostering social connections that help underserved student populations achieve academic and career success. She holds a Master of Public Affairs degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is currently pursuing a PhD in the Truman School of Government and Public Affairs (MU), where her research interests revolve around social capital and underserved populations.