Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Economics study group crafts lasting relationships

As part of this year's reunion, these La Follette grads took a hike through Indian Lake park near Madison. From left: Erin McGrath, Helene Stebbins, Sue Gander, Becca Swartz and Monique Currie. Mary McGreevy took the photo As part of this year's reunion, these La Follette grads took a hike through Indian Lake park near Madison. From left: Erin McGrath, Helene Stebbins, Sue Gander, Becca Swartz and Monique Currie. Mary McGreevy took the photo

A two-year stopover in Wisconsin created lifelong friendships for Erin McGrath.

She came to the La Follette Institute in 1993 with her husband, who enrolled in the economics department's master's program. "It was a two-year plan. We moved to Madison, lived there for two years and moved on," says McGrath, who is now a project manager for the mayor of San Francisco.

Yet, 11 years after graduating, McGrath is still looking back. She and five friends from a La Follette economics study group formed such close friendships that they promised each other to hold an annual reunion and they are keeping their word. Since 2004, they have gotten together three times for long weekends in spots around the country, including Madison in November 2006.

"We stayed in touch in the early years after graduation by attending each others' weddings," says Helene Stebbins, who works in an occasional visit to Madison with her work. "But as life got busy, it was harder to stay in touch. So we agreed to meet for a weekend, and we had a fabulous time in Miami Beach. Our second trip was going to be New Orleans, but that was only six weeks after Katrina, so we had to relocate to Vegas."

Prior to making the commitment to gather every year, McGrath would visit Stebbins and Sue Gander in the Washington, D.C., area when she traveled for work, but family and other commitments made schedules too complicated for everyone to meet.

"We went a number of years without seeing each other, or a couple of us would get together, but not everyone at once, McGrath says. "We missed getting together, so we've committed to seeing each other every year."

They picked Madison for their early November reunion because it is home for two of the groups' members, Monique Currie and Becca Swartz. Mary McGreevy drove down from St. Paul to join them.

They spent Friday night in Madison and had dinner at a new restaurant on Williamson Street, near the Capitol. "We ran into Karl Scholz, who taught the economics class where we all met and formed that study group," McGrath says. "We got a good laugh out of that."

The November weekend was the first time McGrath returned to Madison. On Friday, McGrath, Stebbins, Swartz and Gander drove through campus just as dark was falling. They stopped at the La Follette School at the top of Observatory Hill. "We tapped on the door, and someone let us in, McGrath says. "The student lounge looks the same. I love that little building."

The group isn't sure where they will meet next year, but they are already looking forward to it. Figuring out where to go is always the hardest part of getting together, Stebbins says.

"The truth is, the economics study group brought us together, but we had so much in common before we met that getting to know one another sometimes felt more like a reunion," Stebbins says. "We all have Catholic backgrounds, four of us have fathers who are university professors, four have Italian grandmothers from Pennsylvania, etc.

"I never felt so connected to a group of strangers, so quickly, as I did with these ladies."

Alum develops expertise on children

Helene Stebbins is focusing on early childhood development at home and at work. After more than six years with the National Governors Association, she started her own policy and research firm specializing in the coordination of the health, education and care of children from birth to first grade.

"I decided to work for myself to allow for more flexibility to focus on the early childhood development of my own children (now 6 and 2)," Stebbins says.

The National Center for Children in Poverty is one of HMS Policy Research's two major clients. The center is about to release state policies and indicators of early childhood development that Stebbins pulled together. Her other major client is the District of Columbia Mayors Advisory Committee on Early Childhood Education, whose task force she staffed.

The rest of the gang

Sue Gander is a senior policy specialist with the US Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Energy-Environment State Partnership Program in Washington, D.C.

Becca Swartz is a project coordinator with the Wisconsin Caregiver Background Check Pilot in the state Department of Health and Family Services in Madison.

Monique Currie is a budget and policy analyst for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services in Madison. Mary McGreevy is now home with her children in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is  board president for the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. Ffter graduating from La Follette, she was the executive director of an AIDS clinic on the Texas/Mexico border.

After graduating from La Follette in 1995, Stebbins served as a presidential management intern with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which rotated her through to the National Governors Association.

"While there I specialized in early childhood development, or what states can and are doing to promote the healthy development of children before they enter kindergarten," Stebbins says. This included child care, Head Start, pre-kindergarten, maternal and child health, and a little bit of welfare policy.

Project manager works on stadium development

When Erin McGrath was taking a course in central city planning as part of her Master of Public Affairs degree at La Follette in the mid-1990s, she never imagined shed be in the middle of a debate about a football stadium.

As a project manager in San Franciscos mayors office, McGrath found herself caught up in the negotiations about how the city would participate financially in building a stadium for the San Francisco 49ers. The football team has been trying to build a stadium for 10 years; its current home, Candlestick Park, is the oldest football stadium in the country.

"We've been working on a lot of public-private partnerships to try to develop the land and the new stadium," McGrath says. "The city of San Francisco is trying not to use tax dollars for that."

The city is also trying to get the developer to cover the costs of replacing the public housing that would be lost to the project near the stadium. "We would like to integrate public housing into the project," McGrath says, "especially since there is no more federal money for new housing."

McGrath has been in the mayor's office since 1999. Prior to that she was a deputy director of the mayor's budget office, where she worked for many years.

Her course work and experiences with La Follette furthered her interests in economic development and expanded her knowledge about urban planning and development. "One of the nice things about La Follette was they encouraged us to take courses in other departments," McGrath says. "One of my urban planning classes took us to Chicago for three days. We visited the public housing projects and saw the relationships between poverty and how people live.

"I keep that trip in mind when I'm working on San Francisco's stadium project."

— article last updated December 6, 2006