Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, November 15, 2010

International experience prompts Durkin to consider domestic affairs

Christine Durkin


Durkin is a budget and management analyst with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.

Experience as a Fulbright scholar in Germany brought Christine Durkin back home to Wisconsin to focus on domestic public affairs.

"My time in Germany helped form how I think about our society and how we use our resources," Durkin says. "Germany is more of a socialist state, and their idea of high taxes and taking care of their own was appealing. They emphasize protecting their environment and investing in education and culture."

As part of the Fulbright program, Durkin met with Berlin's mayor, who emphasized that even though Berlin has no money, the city would continue to financially support education, universities and the arts. "Hearing that made me re-evaluate how we use our resources here in the United States," she says. "How we allocate our resources reflects our values."

The emphasis on critical thinking and analysis drew Durkin to the La Follette School to earn a Master of Public Affairs degree. "What's good about the La Follette School and its courses is all the skills we learn that carry over into any policy field," she says. "I am focusing my attention on those opportunities. If I want to know about the politics of education, I can find a book about the topic. But for program evaluation or cost-benefit analysis, I'm not going to just pick up those skills from a book, much less practice them. The classroom experience with experts is essential."

Durkin hopes to pursue education policy. "I used to think I would work with literacy in the developing world because I think education is a human right and leads to a healthier, more peaceful, prosperous democratic society," she says. "I then realized that I don't have to go abroad to make a difference; we have an education crisis right here in the U.S. U.S. schools seriously need to be revamped."

A benefit of the Fulbright was that Durkin found she had to defend and critique U.S. policies. In addition to teaching high school English as a second language, she studied how Germany integrated its immigrant students into the schools, a challenge the United States also faces. "Germany tracks its immigrants into the lowest level of education, and most immigrants are sent to vocational school after the fourth grade, which leads to an achievement gap between migrants and native Germans," Durkin says. "I would argue the U.S. is indirectly tracking people here, but by social class."

Durkin broadened her experience through four summer internships. She is continuing two into the fall, one in the office of the Wisconsin First Lady Jessica Doyle, where Durkin researches policies and Wisconsin organizations, and handles scheduling and constituent correspondence.

In Senator Herb Kohl's Madison office, Durkin conducts policy research and handles constituent correspondence. She took many telephone calls about unemployment benefits. "People's stories were hard to listen to, they were incredibly sad," she says. "The uncertainty they lived with was scary. A 54-year-old woman called. She had been terminated from her job and had a family to support. That's what makes me want to work towards finding effective programs to help people like her get back on their feet and keep this economic crisis from happening again."

Durkin also spent time in two internships with nonprofits, Forward Community Investments and Madison Community Foundation. For the latter she researched potential donors and evaluated grant recipients for the vice president of grant-making. Her internship with Forward Community Investments gave her insight into capacity-building initiatives and how nonprofit organizations can advance community development. "We have a huge need for more nonprofits in Wisconsin, and we have a lot of people with good ideas for new organizations," Durkin says. "My experiences with the foundation and Forward Community Investments showed me how those endeavors can be supported and what is involved with coaching people, the legal work and other aspects."

As for what she will do after graduation, Durkin is keeping her options open. She learned from her internships that she is more geared toward the nonprofit sector than the government. She would like to return to Germany for a time, and she would like to work with a nonprofit agency, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs or a neighborhood house, that promotes literacy and community building. Ultimately she sees herself doing nonpartisan research on education policy for a planning council.

She knows that the skills in analysis and problem-solving she is learning at the La Follette School will be useful in many any policy field or sector.

"Public affairs requires you to learn the context of the situation or problem before you can propose resolutions so you are constantly learning new things," Durkin says. "I like that working with people isn't an exact science, so public affairs allows you to be creative and innovative and try new things. There will always be problems to address and solutions to find; we always have to be thinking of ways to improve."

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