After completing her Master of International Public Affairs degree in 2014, Amanda Wilmarth became an operations research analyst with the Export-Import Bank of the United States.
Amanda Wilmarth wants to improve U.S. relations with China and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Ten years after completing her bachelor's degree in international relations and East Asian studies, Wilmarth is back at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, pursuing a Master of International Public Affairs degree.
"I want to be involved in crafting foreign policy and helping the U.S. make good decisions in the international community," Wilmarth says. "I want to help make sure our message is appropriate for our audience to fully understand it and help our policymakers better understand both expected international reactions and actual reactions."
After graduating in 2003, Wilmarth took a job as an administrative assistant with Resource Solutions Corp., then a small recycling company in Madison. Although she expected to hold the job for a year or two, she ended up staying 10 years, helping the company grow to 30 employees and ultimately serving as chief financial officer after she took business and accounting courses at Madison Area Technical College.
"Resource Solutions was a great training ground for learning how to identify and take advantage of professional opportunities," Wilmarth says. "I loved the job and my coworkers, but I felt like I was missing something professionally. I wanted to be involved in a mission or cause bigger than myself, where I could use the skills I've acquired to give back and grow something."
Wilmarth focused her undergraduate studies on China and Chinese language, and she attended Beijing Normal University through the National Security Education Program's Boren Scholarship.
"I came to La Follette convinced I wanted a job at the U.S. Department of Defense as a policy analyst," she says. "Now I am learning that there may be a lot of paths that I could be interested in, possibly even at the state level, maybe even non-profits. I am keeping my options open. If there's one thing my last job taught me, it's always say YES when an opportunity presents itself, even if it doesn't look like you thought or hoped it would."
One opportunity has been her internship with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Madison through its Pathways Internship Program, a position she has held since December 2012. She pursued the internship because Pathways is "a great gateway into the federal government."
"I had every expectation I would be filing papers and making photocopies," Wilmarth says. "However, I have been so fortunate to use both my previous job skills and my skills learned at La Follette in a meaningful way. Every day I get an opportunity to make vets' lives easier, improve their health care and (maybe just a little tiny bit) streamline the second largest department of the federal government."
Wilmarth works in the Consolidated Patient Account Center, the billing and business arm of the VA hospitals that covers clinics and hospitals in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Her main job is to help establish a Lean Six Sigma quality/process improvement program. She schedules and attends project meetings, helps with data collection and statistical analysis of the results, oversees "tests of change," assists in project team policy recommendations, and provides process advice and support for project team members and leaders. "I have been given many opportunities to attend high level meetings and provide LSS training and policy recommendations," she says.
Wilmarth also assists with payer relations data analysis, looking for trends in payments and claim denials, to assist in policy and procedure recommendations. "Although my analyses are much simpler than what we did in class, I use simple statistical regressions regularly to look for patterns, both for payer issues and Lean Six Sigma projects," Wilmarth says. "I also managed to slide some macroeconomic theories into a conversation, helping a co-worker with a LSS project. I couldn't wait to tell Professor Chinn about it the next day!"
Also, she adds, "word of my Excel skills spread through the building like wildfire, so I spend a lot of time helping various department managers and supervisors on small and ongoing projects to update and streamline VA spreadsheets and data entry processes."
"I love working where everyone truly understands the organization's mission, and really believes in it, even when things are going wrong," Wilmarth says. "I love knowing that every time I streamline a spreadsheet or help another department get caught up or help implement a good Lean Six Sigma waste-reducing idea, I've helped people who have made such huge sacrifices for our country. It's small, but it's on a large scale. And it feels great."
The experience would benefit any student interested in domestic or international public affairs, Wilmarth says. "I've learned a lot about government inefficiency, and all the ways the VA can mess up," Wilmarth says. "I've also learned that the VA does a lot of things right and makes a HUGE difference in so many people's lives."
At the La Follette School, Wilmarth appreciates the small class size and access to professors. "Now that I am more focused and career-driven than when I was an undergraduate, it is wonderful to have so many opportunities to connect with your classmates and professors," says Wilmarth, who is applying her accounting skills as treasurer of the La Follette School Student Association. "I'm not sure I would have made it out of macroeconomics alive if I had to share office hours with 50 people instead of 10. The La Follette School's small program makes every class feel like a discussion section — easy to ask questions, talk through solutions, disagree, discuss. I also love that I know all of my classmates and will have professional connections across the public service domain, as well as several close friendships."
After graduation, Wilmarth ideally will find work to help resolve tension on the Korean Peninsula. Toward that end, she is taking Korean in fall 2013.
However, she is following a practical approach with her coursework so she can take advantage of whatever opportunities come along. "Although I am focusing my MIPA on East Asia, China and defense, I've mostly been taking more general, skills-based classes such as advanced stats and budgeting," she says. "I think it will be more helpful in my job search to have lots of tools and skills than specific area knowledge—technologies and regional issues change so quickly, but numbers are numbers."