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Undergraduate program links Ford School with student-run campus paper, The Daily

L-R: Gary Graca, Nate Sandals, Ben Simon

L-R: Gary Graca, Nate Sandals, Ben Simon

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gary Graca, Nate Sandals and Ben Simon discovered a comforting community when they joined the staff at The Michigan Daily. Common interests and a dedication to informing the University of Michigan campus quickly came to characterize The Daily's community for Graca, Sandals and Simon. Three years later, each of the men became a part of another campus community when he was welcomed into the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy's first class of undergraduates—this time finding a community defined by academic excellence and intellectual curiosity. Leaders at The Daily and leaders at the Ford School, Graca, Sandals and Simon are now helping to connect the Ford School with The Daily in unprecedented ways.

With the implementation of the Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy program in 2007, undergraduate Ford School students are creating a new visibility for the Ford School throughout the University of Michigan campus primarily through extra-curricular activities, says John Chamberlin, longtime Ford School professor and the founding director of the school's undergraduate program. Graduate students have not historically participated in some campus activities—like The Daily—at the levels of undergraduate students, so the addition of the BA program has given the Ford School new links with student activities around the University community.

"I think there's always been a pretty big undergrad majority (at The Daily)," Graca, The Daily's Editor-in-Chief, said. This has traditionally meant an underrepresentation of Ford School students at the newspaper, a consequence of the school's portfolio of graduate programs. That changed in 2007 when the BA was introduced. Graca, Sandals and Simon are just three members of a longer list of undergraduates who are part of both The Michigan Daily and Ford School communities.

Chamberlin believes the nature of public policy study and the application procedures for the program partially explain why Ford School BA students are so prevalent at The Daily's offices. "Part of it is that we recruit these students (to enter the program at the start of their junior year), so they are already meshed with the greater university community," Chamberlin explained, adding, "I think a lot of them are all-around good students, too, so they can write."

Graca, now a senior, agrees that students at The Daily are able to refine skills like writing that are crucial to the study of public policy, but says his work at the newspaper played a much more direct role in his consideration of policy as a major. Throughout his time with The Daily, The Macomb, Mich. native has authored a number of columns about the U.S. prison system and prisoner treatment, which helped develop his interest in corrections and prison policy. Now, with only a semester remaining in his time at the Ford School, his academic preparation in the policy field is making concrete contributions to his work at The Daily.

"Even if policy doesn't come across as the theme (of my columns), I know that policy is in my underlying thinking," he said.

Student Publications Building

Student Publications Building

Like Graca, Sandals joined The Daily staff soon after arriving at the University of Michigan from his home in Philadelphia. Columnist and former Managing Sports Editor at The Daily, Sandals immediately felt at home with his colleagues at the newspaper office.

"I hadn't been around a small academic community before and I always had that feeling of community at The Daily, where we have a small group of people who share the same interests," Sandals explained. That feeling helped lead him to the Ford School, too.

"I really came to Michigan not sure of what to do (about a major)," he said. "I had taken business classes, history and political science courses. I really wanted to get some focus." He read a policy article written by a friend and made an unlikely connection between his experience covering collegiate sports and the world of public policy. "I really see a lot of similarity between sports and policy.

In the end, all of these areas often come down to who has the leverage at the right moment," Sandals said. A little more than a year after joining Graca in the inaugural group of BA students at the Ford School, Sandals says he has grown to appreciate the value of a policy education even more.

"I think I've learned a lot about a person's motivation," he said. "In public policy, we look at a number of different layers when studying an issue. I think that approach helps me to understand the full complexity of a person's motivations." It's a lesson that he believes has served him well as a journalist—and as a student.

While opinion sections and sports pages are staples of newspapers throughout the United States, another Ford School BA student is helping The Daily find new audiences. Ben Simon is a former Multimedia Editor and current Multimedia Staff Member at the newspaper, roles that involve the production of video and audio content for The Daily's Web site.

"It's really exciting for me to be doing this," he said. "I think it will become more important to The Daily as it continues to evolve. You can see a similar transition taking place within all newspapers." Simon originally joined the newspaper staff as a photographer. As multimedia became more of a priority for the newspaper, his role evolved. Much like Graca and Sandals, Simon's work at The Daily has been very much tied to his work at the Ford School. A multimedia piece on stem cell research produced for The Daily became the basis for a policy paper on the topic, for example. Such connections between The Daily and the policy world have led Simon to better identify the media's role in policy formation and reaction. "I'm very interested in the power of journalism to influence policy and inform the public," he said.

Simon, who is originally from Denver, said policy and journalism are two fields that attract similar students, which helps explain why he passes so many of his colleagues from The Daily while walking through Weill Hall. "I think Ford School students are really aware of current events and aware and involved in the community," Simon explained. "Being involved with The Daily is really an extension of that."

He also suggests writers at the paper may be more aware of potential expert article sources at Weill Hall because so many Ford School students are in management and staff positions at The Daily. Prior to the BA program's implementation, some of those resources at the Ford School might have been overlooked, he said. "It is always important to have a diverse spectrum of backgrounds and majors at a college newspaper so that our coverage is representative of the campus as a whole," Simon explained.

Chamberlin is pleased that so many undergraduate students are able to make connections between their interests, community involvement and the prospect of a policy education. The liberal arts orientation of the Ford School BA promises to continue to attract students who are able to further connect the Ford School with the greater University of Michigan community in new ways, he says.

Graca agrees. "I think there is some really strong evidence of that," he said. "I definitely think our work at The Daily helps connect the Ford School with greater campus community."