After a few years working in politics and for nonprofits, Mike Pearson decided that to have more of a positive impact on the causes he believes in, he should pursue an advanced degree.
"The MPA is a good doorway into political careers," he says. "Also, academically I am a generalist who is interested in political science, history and economics. Public policy draws in all those things when one has to analyze an issue."
Pearson graduated in political science from the University of Chicago 2011 with a focus on international relations and American electoral politics. His experiences as an undergraduate got him thinking about public affairs as a career opportunity. "In my class on policy implementation, my professor started the first class by telling us the course should have been titled 'How To Change the World,' which really stuck with me when I was trying to decide which career to pursue," Pearson says."
A summer internship with a district attorney's office helped him realize he did not want to pursue law. "The experience helped interest me in public policy as I saw the way legal policies and institutions impact us all," Pearson says. "I helped my supervisors assemble material for a case that ended with a repeat sexual offender being found guilty. Basically my contribution was listening to hours of recordings of him calling his wife from prison and foolishly making incriminating statements. I helped flag things that could be used and parts of the recordings that couldn't be played for the jury because certain facts about his backstory had been ruled inadmissible in court.
"I was proud to be a small part of a process that brought someone to justice, but the larger takeaway for me was that our legal policies and public institutions are not abstractions, but major forces that affect all of our lives," he says.
After graduating, Pearson worked for political campaigns and nonprofit organizations in Wisconsin and Minnesota, including the Minnesota Orchestral Association and the Fox Valley Literacy Council.
Now he is back in his home state of Wisconsin to work on a Master of Public Affairs degree at the La Follette School.
"La Follette is a great school and I love Madison," says Pearson, "and I grew up in Wisconsin, so coming here was a good choice."
Receiving a scholarship offer also made a difference in his selection of La Follette's MPA program. Funded by a friend of the school, the scholarship allowed Pearson to accept an unpaid internship at the Capitol. "Right now I am focused on the budget process," Pearson says, "but my work at the Capitol has also given me the chance to carry out legislative research, draft press releases, and assist constituents with a variety of issues."
At La Follette, Pearson plans to focus on gaining good policy analysis skills while he pursues his interests in health, education and antipoverty policy. "After graduation, I may work for a nonprofit as a policy advocate or shape and analyze policy on the state government level."
Pearson says he would recommend the La Follette School for its "small, close-knit environment with a cohort that is positive and helpful. Academically, the curriculum and the classes are very good. Third, Madison is a great place to live."
The quantitative skills he is learning are particularly important, he says. "The quantitative skills are what employers will be looking for," he says. "That's what you need to make policy differences. At the very least, you need to understand how to understand data and be a good consumer of data and how to communicate the findings to a nonquantitative person."
Those skills will help Pearson better serve the public. "Whether in a district attorney's office, a legislative office, or on a nonprofit or political campaign, I have seen how the individuals and institutions that shape policy also shape all of our lives," he says. "What could be more important than studying public policy?"