Mike Marriner
Ashoka Fellow since 2014   |   United States

Mike Marriner

Roadtrip Nation
Mike Marriner and the team at Roadtrip Nation are helping students to “define their own roads in life,” by exposing them to an unlimited number of careers and pathways they would not otherwise know…
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This description of Mike Marriner's work was prepared when Mike Marriner was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Mike Marriner and the team at Roadtrip Nation are helping students to “define their own roads in life,” by exposing them to an unlimited number of careers and pathways they would not otherwise know about, and equipping them with the tools and skills they need to make those pathways a reality.

The New Idea

In an effort to make education relevant, Mike and the team are expanding the focus of today’s K-12 education system beyond mastery of content standards and grade completion, to one that instead aims to help students identify and pursue their passions, and the educational pathways required to get there. To date, Roadtrip Nation (RTN) has developed a 3,500 video database featuring interviews with people from across the country – from the CEO of National Geographic, to stand-up comedians, to rocket scientists and lobster fishermen – and organized them by interest and theme. A student interested in food, for instance, can comb through 31 different leaders who have built their careers on a shared passion, learning how they got there and what they did to overcome obstacles along the way.

Mike realized that Roadtrip Nation could play a role similar to that of the Myers-Briggs test, which high school guidance counselors and others have long used as a tool to help students better understand themselves and others. He and the team thus developed a 12-part curriculum, comprised of online lessons pulled from their interview archive, journal activities, and a process through which young people create their own “Roadtrip Nation Experience.”

Rather than attempt to implement the program themselves, Mike is partnering with an array of key networks comprised of guidance counselors and educators in need of better tools to deepen student engagement and improve career readiness, with the result that more than 100,000 high school students in 22 states have participated in the Roadtrip Nation Experience in the four and a half years since it launched. Their reach within schools is complemented by an extensive grassroots network, powered by an annual PBS television show, live events on more than 350 college campuses, and a best-selling book, all aimed at helping people young and old answer the age-old question, “What do you want to do with your life?”

The Problem

The grim statistics confronting the US education system are no secret: according to America’s Promise Alliance, just over 70% of U.S. high school students graduate on time, and 1.2 million drop out of school altogether every year. For African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students, those rates jump to more than half.

Of all the hypotheses that have been suggested to explain this difference, one is beyond dispute: students are bored, and feel school is disconnected from the real world. In a survey of nearly 470 dropouts from across the country, conducted by Civic Enterprises and commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, almost 50% said they left school because their classes were "boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations".

In most schools, the content is profoundly out of touch with the student experience. Much of our content standards are built around the what, rather than the why. Students are told they must meet a certain standard of proficiency in order to advance to the next grade, yet rarely are they asked to consider why a particular piece of knowledge or set of skills might be valuable toward their futures. We focus on what we teach kids, rather than on giving them the tools and drive to carve their own paths, resulting in a palpable lack of agency and self-efficacy.

Most students – particularly those growing up in poverty, without significant social capital – are unaware of the vast array of pathways available to them beyond graduation. While the number of different career paths have multiplied exponentially over the last few decades, many students are familiar only with those that can be described with a single word: "doctor," "lawyer," "secretary," "plumber," "engineer". Moreover, the reality of what those jobs entail, and what's required to attain them – even among those professions that are widely known – often feels out of reach.

The Strategy

Roadtrip Nation began in the summer of 2001, when Mike, together with Nathan Gebhard and Brian McAllister, two friends and fellow recent college grads, realized that despite having successfully completed high school and college, they still didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives. They decided to take a road trip, with the hope that by interviewing people who had defined their own roads in life and asking them how they had gotten there, they’d eventually be able to craft their own answers. The experience gave birth to a documentary film and a best-selling book, and the chance to talk with other students from across the country. They realized, however, that while many students shared a similar hunger, they didn’t want to read about someone else’s journey: they wanted to hit the road themselves, meet with their own list of leaders, and ultimately find their own paths by exploring what led others to theirs.

To help students build the experience firsthand, Mike and the team forged a partnership with PBS to launch an annual television series, following students and young adults on their own Roadtrip experiences. A rigorous application process culminates each summer when teams of three pile into one of several green RVs and, together with a video crew, hit the road. Each team conducts 30 interviews, which then feed into the television show and are used to populate the RTN Interview Archive: a collection now of more than 3,500 video interviews, each tagged by theme and interest.

Mike realized, however, that multimedia content, book tours, and live campus events were not sufficient to expose at-risk students – those most in need – to life pathways they would not have otherwise known existed. Beginning in 2008, he and the team thus developed the Roadtrip Nation Experience: a 12-part curriculum, broken into three distinct sections. Students begin with a series of educational lessons gleaned straight from hundreds of interviews in the RTN Archive. Each theme has a corresponding video lesson, along with an interactive assignment, and workbook activities for writing, reflection, and collaboration. Next, students undergo a process of identifying their own interests and passions by exploring the video archives, finally conclude with completing their own Roadtrip Project, wherein they go into their own communities and interview local leaders from all walks of life, discovering the ways in which their passions translated into a career, and the steps they took to get to where they are today. Students research and identify prospective interviewees, reach out through cold-calls, and learn how to develop effective interview questions. They document each interview through a combination of videos, photos, and written narrative, the best of which are selected for inclusion on the website and in the television series.

Recognizing that scaling such a program school-by-school would be both tedious and slow, Mike developed a one-to-many model, teaming up with a variety of partners in the college readiness space with the desire and capacity to implement the curriculum themselves, whether in-school or through after-school programming. Mike saw that many organizations in the field were hungry for tools that would deepen student engagement. Rather than compete with those organizations, he thus offered up the RTN Experience as a tool that could help each one improve its own effectiveness. Current partners include AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), Gateway to College, California Career Academies, and NAF Academies. Thanks to the low cost of delivery at just $35/student, the program has successfully scaled from a 2,000-student pilot in 2008, to having more than 100,000 students build local Roadtrip Projects in the past 4 years.

As an alternative to taking on the complete program, schools can subscribe to the RTN Archive and allow their students to explore their database virtually. In addition to being infinitely scalable, this approach also acts as a demand-builder for the RTN Experience Curriculum, should schools then choose to take the next step. In February, 2013, Mike and the team launched a partnership with Naviance, the world’s leading college and career readiness platform for schools and districts. Members of Naviance receive free access to the RTN Archive, allowing RTN to expand to 4,200 schools by January 2014. The two partnership strategies combined are resulting in four million students receiving the RTN Interview Archive in the 2013-2014 school year.

Aware that changing the very narrative around why we educate requires buy-in not just from students, but from key influencers across the K-12 landscape, Mike has teamed up with a number of venerable research institutions in order to more deeply understand the model's impact and its associated implications. In 2013, The Hewlett Foundation and Dr. David Conley, a renowned researcher in the field of college readiness, released a report on the effectiveness of RTN in schools serving high numbers of low-income students in San Jose USD. The comparison study found drop-out prone students engaged in RTN to have significantly higher rates of self-efficacy and improved abilities to collaborate and communicate, and were more likely to believe that what they learn in school will be important to them later in life. Moreover, student GPA was found to increase at twice the rate of non-RTN students over the same time period, despite the fact that RTN makes little mention of academic achievement: there are no lessons that encourage students to study harder or get good grades.

Such findings offer powerful proof points for the field at large, by demonstrating that the key to improved academic outcomes lies in encouraging the behaviors, attitudes, and strategies that lead to improved agency and self-directed learning. Mike and the team are now working with the Stanford Graduate School of Education on a follow-up implementation study, exploring the connections between the RTN Curriculum and Stanford’s “Theory of Possible Selves” regarding the strategies associated with re-engaging disconnected youth in school and their futures.

Despite these successes, Mike realized that launching a true student-driven movement – one that would allow every student across America to explore what’s possible for their future, and “define their own road in life” – meant that he could not rely on schools alone. In the Fall of 2013, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he and the team released a new tool to enable individual students to directly engage with Roadtrip Nation without going through their schools. Called “What’s Your Road?”, the tool provides a framework for students to explore potential pathways based on their existing passions and skillsets: a student with a love of communications and storytelling and a passion for art and food can find others who shared a similar set of interests, and discover what led them to the place they’re in. Moreover, the tool will ultimately do what the current archives and program cannot: beyond showcasing how myriad individuals applied their passions to little known career paths, the tool will deconstruct how those individuals got to the positions they're in: what educational experiences were important, where they got training, and the like.

Roadtrip Nation’s grassroots, student-centric aesthetic has been critical for the movement’s success, and Mike has been able to maintain that voice and direct-to-student reach through a variety of media extensions, even while embedding their work more and more in the K-12 education system. The result is that they have been able to avoid the overly academic feel of most school-based programs. Media components include the annual RTN Documentary Series on public television (now in its 10th season), www.roadtripnation.com (as opposed to roadtripnation.org), a successful YouTube channel, and RTN books including a new release with Chronicle Books, the largest publisher for the Millennial generation, coming out in 2014 -2015.

This broad range of activities and the organization’s highly diversified economic model has been critical to its scale. Book sales and licensing fees from the television show and roadtripnation.com help to fund RTN's nonprofit education arm, housed under roadtripnation.org. In addition, Mike has been able to use major partnerships like that with Naviance to both bring RTN content to millions of students, while providing a recurring revenue source to support the nonprofit. The remainder of its $6.2 million budget for 2013 comes from foundation grants, which have fueled the development of new education resources, evaluation studies, and place-based pilots.

The program has served 100,000 students, while the RTN Interview Archive is serving 4,000,000 students in the 2013-2014 academic year, empowering counselors and teachers with more engaging tools and content they need to reach their students. Finally, the annual RTN public television series is broadcasted in 60,000,000 households each year, or 70% of all American households, adding a significant level of general awareness for the growing movement.

The Person

Mike’s grandfather served as his earliest role model: a pediatrician by training, he served for a time as an international aid worker in Thailand, treating kids along the Mekong River who had been shot while fleeing from the communist side of the river. Similarly committed to making a difference, Mike assumed that he, too, would become a doctor. When he arrived on campus as a college freshman, he immediately chose to major in Biology, intending to go on to medical school. It was only at the end of his four years of undergrad, when he was applying to medical schools, that he realized he’d never even considered other options.

He went to see his college guidance counselor, who handed him the Myers-Briggs test. After taking the test, however, he felt no closer to knowing what he wanted to do with his life. It was at that moment that he and two friends decided to hit the road in an old RV - and to learn from people who were doing what they loved. Three months and 17,000 miles later, the three had cold-called and interviewed an eclectic group of 85 individuals, ranging from the CEO of National Geographic, to a lobster fisherman in Maine, each of whom had shared the steps they had taken to get where they are today.

The story was picked up by Forbes, which resulted in a book deal with Random House and eventual coverage through NBC’s Today Show and several other national media outlets. The book became the 15th best-selling book in the US, prompting a book tour, in which they visited schools across the country. Positioned by their publisher as “Motivational Speakers” for their generation, the three were offered a reality TV development deal with MTV and the possibility of a second book deal. Mike felt immediately uncomfortable: students didn’t want to just live vicariously through their experiences, he knew. They wanted to learn firsthand; to explore the "open road" themselves. Moreover, the MTV deal would mean they couldn't own the content, and therefore had little way to control who received that content and how.

In 2003, they left the publisher and founded Roadtrip Nation as an independent effort, with the goal of providing guidance and support to help other students create their own roadtrips. In place of MTV, they forged a partnership with PBS. The partnership with public television proved to be a critical move as 12 years, 100 episodes, and thousands of interviews later, RTN maintained the rights to its massive digital content archive.

In 2008, Mike and the team realized that the students who could most benefit from the growing content archive and experiential learning model -- those most in need of exposure to different pathways -- would never find it through a television show and campus tour. So they developed a pilot of The RTN Experience curriculum, and spent six months in 2008 in California Central Valley schools piloting the tool.

It was then that Mike knew he had found his life’s work: empowering students who have had the least opportunities to explore possible pathways for their future, with a truly transformational experience that enabled them to define their own roads in life.

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