More than 50 La Follette School students celebrated graduation May 17 with a ceremony in the Assembly Chamber at the Wisconsin Capitol.
Associate Director Hilary Shager welcomed the graduates and gave awards to the students, and Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, gave the keynote.
Wright thanked the graduates for choosing their career paths in the public service. "There couldn't be a better place than the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs to prepare you for the challenges ahead," Wright said. "The interdisciplinary team approach coupled with a mission for public service gives you the skills you need to make a difference."
Wright emphasized the need for students to help people lacking direct experience with policy and government see how their lives are enriched because of it. "One of the most direct ways to achieve this is to promote and protect meaningful and inclusive public dialogue in decision-making," says Wright, who graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison Law School and has worked statewide in the public interest on issues ranging from elder law, environmental protection, conservation and support for people affected by family violence. "There is a real risk of discounting the value of the public when one is working with inadequate resources and under pressure from special interests. ... Public policy is best made in a teaching and learning environment that includes everyone willing to engage in civic life. Your skill will be needed to transform the ideas stakeholders bring to the table into implementable and accountable policies."
Graduating student Kate Austin also spoke. She noted the wide range of academic and professional experiences that brought her and her classmates to the La Follette School. "We came from distinct backgrounds, studying sociology, creative writing, political science, public health, economics, and engineering; serving in the Peace Corps and the military; and working as teachers, on political campaigns, at non-profit organizations," she said. "We now share this thread of common history."
Austin noted the importance of holding graduation in the Capitol, to connect the university and state government, and embody the Wisconsin Idea. "I grew up in Madison and I didn't truly appreciate this unique relationship between the school and the broader community," she said. "I thought it was normal; I thought it was a commitment inherent to higher education to improve people's lives beyond the classroom. After spending time at different universities and in different cities, I now recognize this special relationship and take pride in being part of its continued tradition."
She and her class put the Wisconsin Idea into action, extending the boundaries of the university to the boundaries of the state and beyond. "I'm so proud of the work that we've collectively been able to accomplish," Austin says. "We've worked on projects examining operations and transportation policy for the city of Madison. At the state level, we've worked with the Department of Public Instruction to analyze achievement of English language learners, studied patterns in child protective services reports for the Department of Children and Families, and provided the Legislative Council policy options to reduce opioid consumption in the state."
"Internationally, we've estimated the costs of alcohol screening programs in Zambia, proposed an improved metric for global poverty, and determined key success factors for unity governments," Austin added.
Faculty speaker Don Moynihan emphasized the need for intelligent public service, that for the Wisconsin Idea to be fulfilled, the state needs to public service motivation and the range of analytical skills taught at the La Follette School. "Functioning societies depend upon groups of public spirited people, in whatever sector they work, who can self-interest aside in favor of the commonweal."
"Central to the Wisconsin idea is not just a desire to serve, but the need for intelligence service: We help others best when we bring our analytical skills to the cause," Moynihan said. "'Intelligent service' means judicious use of evidence to support our common goals."
Several students received awards in recognition of their academic achievements. Allison Sambo received the Penniman Prize for a paper she wrote. Kyle Schroeckenthaler and Eric O'Shaughnessy received the Director's Award in recognition of their outstanding academic records. The major criterion for the award is attained GPA, but there also must be evidence of being an outstanding public policy thinker and communicator. Dylan Blake received the Piore Prize for Best Paper in Science and Public Policy.
Sixty-five students make up the class of 2015. Forty seven of them completed Master of Public Affairs degrees and 18 completed Master of International Public Affairs degrees.
"We are motivated, engaged people, in grad school not just for the sake of learning, but for the opportunities to do meaningful work that having a MPA or MIPA will afford us," says Carl Christiansen, president of the La Follette School Student Association. "I now have the responsibility to take what I have been learning for the last six years (two at La Follette, four undergrad) and do something with it to serve the public interest."
Six members of Christiansen's class also completed dual degrees in public health and two in law. Three students earned double degrees in urban and regional planning.
Some graduates also completed certificates in addition to their master's degrees:
• five in energy analysis and policy
• one in patient safety
• one in leadership
• two in transportation management and policy
Four students are continuing their academic studies: two are working on Ph.D. in neuroscience, a third in human ecology. One student is enrolled in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies' environment and resources master's program.
"This time of graduation is significant because the public seems distrustful of both the public and private sectors," Christiansen says. "They don't trust the private sector, but they don't trust the government to regulate the private sector either. As new professionals entering the work force we will be heavily scrutinized and it will be up to us to earn the public trust and demonstrate our usefulness."
"I hope my class remembers why they came to La Follette and doesn't let knowing 'how the sausage is made' dampen their enthusiasm for public service and the Wisconsin Idea," he adds.
"As we move forward from today, our paths will diverge and we will pursue different interests across the public, non-profit and private sectors," Austin said. "However, today I want to challenge myself and all of you to make equity a priority in our work no matter where we find ourselves. ... We know the power of sound policy to lead to sustainable change. We know this and believe this or else we would not have pursued this degree. We know that policies, good and bad, build on each other forming long histories and giving us our complex present realities. And now with the skills we've gained here at La Follette, we all have the responsibility become a part of this history and to take action to move our society forward."