Curiosity and persistence have paved Sean Bray’s path from hockey player to aspiring European Union policy maker.
As a middle-school student, Bray played in a hockey tournament in Sweden and participated in a foreign exchange program. During high school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he convinced his parents to welcome students from Germany, France, and Venezuela into their home for several months at a time.
This past summer, between his first and second years at the La Follette School of Public Affairs, Bray had a front-row seat when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union (EU).
“People in the EU Parliament were shocked, they were upset,” said Bray, who worked for a German member of the European Parliament – the directly elected parliamentary institution of the EU – for two months. “The United Kingdom is the first major country to exit the EU. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
Bray said two undergraduate courses taught by La Follette School faculty members helped him grasp the significance of the vote – known as Brexit.
“Mark Copelovitch’s course Politics of Global Financial Relations helped me understand the financial consequences of Brexit,” he said. “Macroecononmic Policy with Menzie Chinn helped me understand exports and imports and the Central Bank’s role in Brexit.”
Working for MEP Arne Lietz in Germany, Bray spent much of his time translating websites in Magdeburg. He also drafted letters from Lietz to the British and U.S. ambassadors to Germany, attended speaking engagements, and accompanied Lietz during policy negotiations.
“He let me shadow him everywhere,” said Bray, who earned academic credit for his internship and received financial support from the La Follette School Summer Public Affairs Learning Experience Award Program. “Without this funding, I would not have been able to do this opportunity.”
During his first year at La Follette, Bray also participated in the European Student Conference at Yale University for young students interested in the EU. Four hundred undergraduate and graduate students applied, and only 15 from the United States were accepted. The other 65 participants were Europeans studying in the States.
During the two-day conference in February 2015, the students from 45 U.S. universities and the College of Europe discussed specific policy proposals for the EU with European policymakers and scholars and created European Horizons – a nonpartisan, student-led think-tank for articulating and advancing a credible plan for the EU.
“The general understanding of the conference was that participants must have traveled extensively in Europe so that we represented a full table of ideas,” said Bray. “The goal was to find talent, start chapters, and create the foundation for European Horizons.”
Bray and the other participants did just that – creating more than two dozen local chapters, including one at UW-Madison. Bray is president of the Wisconsin chapter, which includes nearly 10 students, and Nils Ringe, associate professor of political science and La Follette School faculty affiliate, is the group’s adviser.
"Sean has been a leading voice on campus regarding European and EU affairs,” said Ringe. “His drive and dedication have led a great many students to become involved in discussing and trying to address some of the most important challenges facing the transatlantic partnership between the United States and EU. It is so important to have students take initiative, and Sean’s leadership is exemplary.”
Bray has known Ringe since transferring to UW-Madison in January 2014 as an economics and international relations major. After graduating from Kenosha Bradford High School in 2011, he participated in UW-Madison’s Connections Program, taking his freshman and sophomore courses at UW-Parkside in his hometown. He also studied in France for the 2012 – 2013 school year.
“By living at home, I saved a lot of money and that allowed me to travel in Europe,” he said.
Living in Madison, Bray knew that he would need a job or internship, and he began exploring his options. He stopped by the Center for European Studies, where he was told there were no openings. Bray also went to the Department of Economics during open office hours for students.
“The adviser noticed that I was interested in economic policies rather than economics in general,” he said. “I had no idea what the La Follette School was until the economics adviser told me about it.”
Bray followed the adviser’s suggestion and visited the La Follette School, where Student Services Coordinator Mary Treleven told him about the Master of International Public Affairs (MIPA) program and the Accelerated Program.
That’s when all of the pieces started falling into place. Less than a month after he first approached the Center for European Studies, he learned that a student job became available, interviewed, and began work the next day. Shortly thereafter, he submitted applications for La Follette’s Accelerated Program and the European Student Conference at Yale.
“I tend to end up in situations that are beneficial to me because I do the research, ask questions, and find out what’s available,” said Bray. ”It’s easier to be confident when you’ve done the research.”
Bray, who is fluent in French and has a working knowledge of German, said the La Follette School has given him the skills to analyze policies. “I like to think about the next 50 years and look at the policymaking process rather than current-day policies,” he said, adding that he consider himself a visionary – “how we get to where we want to be politically, economically, and socially.”
After receiving two bachelor’s degrees from UW-Madison in May 2016 (with minors in French and European studies), Bray is on track to receive his MIPA in May 2017. He already is considering his options after that, which include studying at the College of Europe in Belgium and working with the EU from the United States.
While retracing his educational and career path, Bray recalled his hockey-playing days, when he learned that “luck is where preparation meets opportunity.” Stay turned to find out where that takes him next.