Boots on the ground: Annual trip gives students perspective on policy work in DC

February 25, 2019

While Graduate Career Service’s yearly DC trip is only two days, its benefits reverberate to influence students’ career trajectory plans. On February 7 and 8, 35 Ford students took part in panels and information sessions around Washington, DC, on a variety of policy areas. While the topics ranged to give students the opportunity to explore different interests, the takeaways hold a common theme: it’s all about being there.

“The return on investment for students who go on the trip, experience the city, make connections is really high,” commented Director of Graduate Career Services and Alumni Relations Jennifer Niggemeier. “It helps students clarify if they want to make DC happen for them or not.”

That exploration is exactly why student Emma Dolce (MPP ‘20) chose to attend. “I went to check out my options,” said Dolce. “I don’t come from a policy background, so I wanted to see what was available first-hand.”

The ways students go about that goal vary. Over the two days, GCS organized eight panels, four lunch and learns, and a networking event with keynote panel for current students with alumni. Students attended panels on a range of topics including Careers in Social Policy, which brought together four speakers, many of whom are alumni of the Ford School, to talk shop about navigating careers built around a social issue. Other panels, like Careers in Research/Think Tanks, allowed students to more specifically explore the private sector.

Many of the panels were made up predominantly, if not entirely, of former Ford MPP/MPA students. The alumni refected on the benefits of choosing a Ford School education before moving to DC. That decision was affirmed again and again throughout the trip, as alumni eagerly discussed their gratitude for their Ford experience.

Walking the halls of prospective future employers and hearing from former MPP students are invaluable experiences that help inform current students’ educational paths. Mike Hegeman (MPP ‘20) remarked on how this in-person experience was critical for refining both his short- and long-term plans. “The panels were great for informing what people do in different sectors that I have no experience in,” said Hegeman. “Not only am I pretty sure what I want to do this summer,” he continued, “but I have a fairly clear idea of what I want to work on for the next five years.”

The panels are often highlighted by students, but many reported that the opportunity to engage with alumni at the networking event made the biggest impact. The first component was a discussion with Ford alumni, moderated by Professor Elisabeth Gerber, on the impact of past Applied Policy Seminars. Cindy Bank, Associate Director for the Program in Practical Policy Engagement, said she “Loves hearing the former students’ experiences and that of the clients,” going on to say that “the value of having our students work on such projects, their apparent dedication to not only become policy professionals while in school but to embody their role, this all contributes to helping train the next generation.”

Bank, who spent years in DC working in government relations for U-M, echoed sentiments of others, though, when she said the critical part of the DC trip is having students there in-person to connect with policy leaders. Commenting on the networking reception, Bank said that there’s “Always a great energy...when you bring together alumni who are policy professionals and our graduate students. I’m thrilled that over the past few years we’ve invited BA students, who bring something new to the DC trip experience.” The reception went well past its scheduled end time, as current students and alumni connected on their Ford experience and future goals, with many a business card being dealt.  

Her most important advice continues this theme, encouraging present and future policy students interested in working in DC to make the trip, saying “You’ve just got to be there.”

Watch a recording of Professor Gerber’s keynote here.

-Julia Henrikson, MSW/MPP 2019