Reflecting on her own journey, Katherine Gehl challenged the La Follette School of Public Affairs’ Class of 2017 to take on challenges big enough that the possibility of failure is real and present.
Gehl, a member of the La Follette School’s Board of Visitors, used the analogy of a sports team to illustrate one piece of advice she shared with the 35 graduates at the State Capitol on May 14. At age 30, Gehl learned that there were two types of people: “people doing the game of life on the court, and people doing the game of life in the stands.”
“When I learned this and saw where I was in the stands, it gave me the ability to transform my life,” said Gehl, who works on nonpartisan political reform and innovation. She previously served as the fourth-generation president and chief executive officer of Gehl Foods, vice president at Bernstein Investment Research and Management, special assistant to Mayor Richard M. Daley for technology and economic development, and director of information technology services at Chicago Public Schools.
“When you’re on the court playing the game that’s worthy of you and worthy of what the world needs from you, you will have a lot more failures, but you will be fully alive,” she said.
Gehl also urged the graduates to beware of social proof. Acknowledging liveliness and comradery of group dynamics, she said, “there will be times in your life – very much so in the careers you’ve chosen – when you must be able to say ‘the emperor has no clothes’.
“This will be immeasurably easier if you can distinguish the social proof that is always at work trying to keep you from saying precisely that,” she added.
Like Gehl, faculty speaker Rourke O’Brien encouraged the graduates to speak up. “Don’t back away from complex issues or sit quietly if something doesn’t appear to make sense,” he said. “Raise your hand, ask questions – and if you figure out a better way, advocate for it.”
O’Brien admitted his surprise when the students selected him as their graduation speaker, especially because he joined the La Follette faculty six months after they began their graduate studies.
“What’s more ... the vast majority of that time was spent talking about such scintillating topics as tax increment financing, property tax capitalization, municipal bonds, and the crucial distinction between refundable and nonrefundable tax credits,” he said.
An assistant professor of public affairs, O’Brien applauded the students for their focus on service.
“Public servants are the foundation of our society, our civic, collective life,” he said. “You just spent the last two years developing skills and perspectives that will help you fulfill your sacred vocation – a life of public service dedicated to helping society translate its collective dreams, aspirations, and ambitions into reality.”
Student speaker Scott Coleman (MPA), who sprinkled in quotations from the Declaration of Independence and The Great Gatsby, congratulated his classmates for their deeply felt empathy and their resolve to take on seemingly unsolvable challenges.
“So let’s celebrate today not just for finishing our degree, but as a realization of all those compassionate impulses that formed our lives, and as a chance to escape that impotent and helpless feeling that so many face when confronted with all of the world’s problems, a chance to turn our long held concerns into meaningful action,” he said.
Coleman, who accepted a position with Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau, also expressed optimism amid what he called the emotional trap of politics.
“Despite everything, a whole group of brilliant, compassionate, and capable people who could be undertaking a near limitless amount of possible careers have decided this is the best course for their lives – that those challenges don’t diminish their resolve but strengthen it,” he said.
Originally from Minnesota, Coleman holds bachelor of science degrees in international studies and political science from UW–Madison along with certificates in Middle Eastern studies and African studies. He also worked as a project assistant for La Follette School Professor Menzie Chinn, analyzing quantitative data on state economic conditions to predict state business cycles, and completed internships at the State Senate as well as the Government Accountability Office in Washington, DC.
Karina Virrueta (MPA) and first-year student Casey Hutchinson (MIPA) coordinated the graduation ceremony. Four students also were recognized for their work. Cole Korponay (MPA) received the Piore Prize for best paper in science and public policy (The Neurobiology of Antisocial and Amoral Behavior: Insights from Brain Science and Implications for Law), and Samuel Rebenstorf (MPA) received the Penniman Prize for most outstanding paper written by a graduating student (Analyzing the Fiscal Impacts of Capping and Reducing Federal Funding for Medicaid on State Governments). In addition, Miranda Ehrlich (MPA) and Kirsten Jacobson (MIPA) received the Director’s Award for their outstanding academic record and evidence of being an outstanding public policy thinker and communicator.