Empathy in action — caring about other people and acting to help them in some way — draws Lacee Koplin to public service.
"I volunteered at my local food pantry a lot while I was growing up, and that got me interested in social issues in a hands-on sense, but I felt like there was so much more I could do," the public affairs student says. "I was a sociology major in undergrad, especially interested in social stratification and inequality. A main theme in my core classes was that social problems stemmed from issues in social structure, one of the pillars of which is government. Public affairs seemed like the logical intersection of my interests — the focus on social problems that had led me to sociology and my desire to make a difference on a larger scale through government."
This summer, Koplin is interning with Second Harvest, helping with Feeding America's Hunger in America 2014 Study, the largest study of charitable food assistance in the United States. The survey is conducted every four years and local food banks like Second Harvest participate.
Koplin is mostly helping clients take the survey on electronic tablets. "I help set up the equipment, read informed consent documents to clients, help them use the tablets and, when the clients have questions, explain what the survey questions are trying to ask," she says. She also will help the lead Second Harvest person with sampling.
Her classroom experience is proving useful. "Advanced Quantitative Methods for Public Policy is helpful, especially having learned about the different ways data can be biased and how to avoid those situations," says Koplin, who was elected volunteer coordinator of the La Follette School Student Association for the 2013-14 school year. "The research I've done for multiple classes on poverty and food insecurity has given me background to understand the type of data the survey seeks to collect and the potential issues faced by the people taking the survey."
Koplin came to the La Follette School after earning her bachelor's degree from Illinois State University in 2010. "The Institute for Research on Poverty was a large factor in my decision to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison," Koplin says. "My interest is poverty and social policy and the IRP is this huge knowledge generator, one of only three of its kind in the country, and it's based right on campus."
IRP is one of the many resources available to students at UW–Madison. "The La Follette School is a mile away from the Capitol, where all the governmental happenings we learn about are taking place, and there are a lot of opportunities for site visits and talks with people who are in or have been in government," Koplin says. "La Follette has a great reputation in government, not just in Madison but also in Washington, D.C."
In choosing La Follette, Koplin found the program's flexibility to be attractive. "On one hand, I didn't have to know all the answers up front about what I wanted to study, so being able to figure that out as I go is nice," she says. "I can customize my program based on what I want to learn and know rather than be locked down into a rigid curriculum that doesn't serve my needs."
"Whether or not you pick an area of interest or just focus on gaining technical skills, you get a great grounding in what's important in public affairs," she says. "I've been here two semesters, and I am amazed at the depth and breadth of what I've already learned."
Koplin earlier interned with a member of the Wisconsin Assembly. "It's a really cool opportunity to see firsthand how state government works and contribute to it in some small way," she says. "I researched issues that the representative was interested in to provide him with information he can then use to inform potential legislation."
"The memos I had to do in the public management course helped hone the skills I'm using in my internship," she says. "The memos helped teach me how to write clearly and briefly while conveying the important information."
The small size of the La Follette School program means faculty know their students, Koplin says, and can help them achieve their goals. "The small size allows a better tailored education for students," she says. "The people are amazing — there's so much support from the faculty, staff, and my fellow students. Everyone wants to see you succeed, and they do all they can to help you do so."