A native of Baltimore City, Zawadi was always drawn to urban issues. She spent most of her undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland at College Park in LeFrak Hall between the geography and African American Studies departments. After completing a B.S. in Environmental Science and Policy and a minor in African American Studies, she pursued a career in evaluation research. She learned the ropes of qualitative research at MDRC in the Low-Wage Workers and Communities policy area where she worked on workforce development and community initiative evaluations. From MDRC, Zawadi went onto the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College where she worked on evaluations of student success courses and online courses. Prior to coming to UC Berkeley to pursue a PhD in sociology, Zawadi completed a Master’s in Public Administration from New York University where she focused on housing and urban policy.