After completing his Master of Public Affairs degree in May 2015, Sam Matteson became a research associate at American Institutes for Research in Chicago, working in the education department on state and local policies and conducting program evaluations.
Sam Matteson came to policy analysis by way of studying music at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and then transferring to the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point to earn his degree in psychology.
After he graduated in 2010, he signed to serve with AmeriCorps and spent two years with the educational non-profit City Year Milwaukee as a tutor and mentor for middle school students in Milwaukee Public Schools. "The organization's mission is to end the high school drop-out crisis," he says. "My work there centered on preparing my students for all of the pressures they are about to face; academically and in life."
"That experience got me interested in education policy," Matteson says. "I also came to realize that there are systemic and structural issues keeping students from reaching their full potential in many educational settings, so now I'd like to take a broader approach, rather than just hands-on. It's important to understand the systems in play."
The systems approach brought him to the La Follette School's Master of Public Affairs degree program. "I like the broader view of public affairs as opposed to focusing solely on education policy," Matteson says.
He is designing his coursework to learn the technical skills that will apply in multiple policy fields. "I can investigate environmental policy or education policy on my own, but knowing how to do a thorough cost-benefit analysis, I can't just pick that up," Matteson says. "From tutoring and my undergraduate psychology degree, I have good people skills, so the quantitative skills are good to learn. A lot of the economics has been eye-opening to me, and a regression analysis is very useful. I had not encountered that before."
This summer, Matteson is working as the listener sponsor development director for WORT-FM community radio station in Madison. He accepted the three-month interim appointment after volunteering with the news department for a year as producer and engineer. "I make sure that donors receive their premiums, process their pledges and donations, and I keep the database current," he says. "I also get to observe a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization compete and thrive in the music and news markets dominated by multinational corporations. It's really remarkable."
Matteson is also continuing a project assistantship he started in February with La Follette School director Susan Yackee as part of the University of Wisconsin–Madison's role as consulting institution to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the newly founded Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan. "The university will graduate its first undergraduate class next year," Matteson says, "and is launching its graduate school in the fall. We are consulting with them on their graduate programs in economics and in political science and international relations."
Matteson is enjoying this foray into higher education policy. "Watching an organization build itself — its exciting and insightful getting to see the strategic choices being made," Matteson says, adding that he has been able to apply the organizational theory he has learned at La Follette to better understand the context in which the international partnership is evolving.
At La Follette, Matteson appreciates that the courses give students opportunities to follow their own policy interests, which is especially important given the diversity of the cohort. "For example, Professor Susan Yackee's course on the policymaking process is about how the U.S. adopts and interprets its laws, and my final paper focused on federal higher education policy," he says.
The courses also have connected him and his classmates to real-world clients. "For Don Moynihan's public management class, I wrote a paper on Milwaukee Public Schools on teacher turnover and retention — how structures motivate people to stay or leave their jobs."
For Moynihan's performance management course, Matteson and his group evaluated KidStat, a data-driven performance review system the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families uses. "We looked at the department's process for the regular meetings where they look at the data related to their mission and goals and develop a strategic plan for implementation," Matteson says.
Matteson also appreciates the access students have to faculty. "The ease of going to office hours and making appointments and the faculty's willingness to answer questions and guide you toward your interests has been very helpful." Matteson says.
"Professors like Don Moynihan have even been active in writing op-eds in national newspapers in defense of public affairs programs and students, as well as participating in the national conversation on contentious issues," he adds. "When you see the faculty show up in that way, it is empowering."