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What I Never Learned in Graduate School

  • What I Never Learned in Graduate School: Reflection on the 2014 LEE Policy and Advocacy Summer Fellowship
    Photo credit:
    Chase Heilman
A reflection on the Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship

Before I applied to the Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship (PASF), I had a hunch that my master’s in public policy degree might be leaving a few things out.

During my first semester, I felt awful. Going from teaching English to 120 8th graders in Las Vegas to taking classes and waiting tables in North Carolina was a shock. Suddenly my life was 100 percent about me, and that shift in focus from students to myself was uncomfortable.

My conversations with classmates were about statistics, economics and whether it was fair that a second-year graduate student graded our memos. No one talked about race, equity, social justice, educational inequality or any of the things I naively imagined would be topics of conversation. My classmates and professors seemed to lack any regard for the injustices happening all around us, and I was frustrated.
Searching for the right internship for the summer between my first and second year was challenging. There was a lot of pressure to go into consulting, where interns were paid well for the summer and guaranteed a job after graduation. It was an attractive offer to someone going into debt for a degree, but I also knew that the reason I went back to school was not to become a management consultant.
The PASF application arrived in my inbox at just the right time. It took a lot of patience to stick it out through the placement process while all of my classmates were accepting offers, but I’m so glad that I did.
The fellowship matched me with BEST NC, a nonprofit that brings together the business community in order to improve public education in North Carolina. I met Brenda Berg, president and CEO of the organization, for coffee in Raleigh one Sunday in April and was immediately drawn in by her intelligence and charm. She showed me a PowerPoint she uses to share information with business executives about the challenges facing North Carolina schools. We talked about data, tracking outcomes and impact evaluation, and she said that BEST NC doesn’t support anything without proof of its effectiveness. We bonded over our shared passion for changing the way America treats its teachers. Brenda offered me a summer placement on the spot, and I excitedly accepted.
While at BEST NC, I worked on many different projects, but the focus of the summer was on a major meeting we held in July to get input from nearly 100 education stakeholders regarding a vision for North Carolina education. BEST NC is drafting a roadmap, the 2020 Vision for North Carolina Education, to guide education policy and practice in the state for the next five years, and the summer gathering kicked off the collaborative planning.

Other Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellows in North Carolina came to the event and helped out by taking notes and participating as teachers. When the event was over, the Fellows debriefed. It was these sessions — these meetings and conversations with my peers — that were the most valuable to me. We analyzed policy decisions based on an equity framework; we talked about why there were few teachers and no students in the meetings we went to all summer with policymakers; and we thought critically about how to bring race, class and gender into conversations when most policy leaders we worked with were affluent, white and male.
I did not have any conversations like these in classes during my first year of graduate school, nor did I speak with elected officials or policy leaders during my coursework. The PASF gave me the opportunity to have those critical conversations and also network with influential policy leaders. There is no doubt that my contribution to my placement organization was greater because of the analysis, writing and research skills I learned that first year in school, but the fellowship filled the gaps in my formal education. I witnessed legislation being written and passed, I built relationships with like-minded, passionate people working in education policy, and I spoke openly about educational equity with policy leaders. My summer as a Fellow was equally challenging and rewarding, and it convinced me to stay in North Carolina and continue working to achieve educational equity in this state.

About the Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship

Each year, hundreds of LEE members express an interest in entering and advancing in careers in policy and advocacy, and look for ways to gain knowledge, skills and experience. The Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship helps LEE members who are recent alumni and current corps gain valuable, hands-on experience. LEE matches selected Fellows with a host organization for an eight-week, full-time professional internship and supports them through national and regional professional and leadership development programming. Throughout the program, Fellows have an opportunity to explore the root causes of educational inequity and to develop tools that promote more equitable solutions.

Find out more about the Policy & Advocacy Summer Fellowship.