Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Laura Downer, MIPA

Laura Downer, MIPA

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Victoria, MN

Undergraduate education
Bachelor’s degree with Honors in the Liberal Arts: International Studies, Political Science, German, European Studies Certificate, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Professional/research interests
International Development, Foreign Policy, International Political Economy, and many more!

Phi Beta Kappa

Expected graduation date
May 2021

Why a MIPA?
I came to UW–Madison as an undergraduate student in 2016 not knowing what I wanted to study. I chose the school mainly for a year-long study abroad program in Freiburg, Germany, the Academic Year in Freiburg, which I had the opportunity to complete during my sophomore year. That experience aligned neatly with a recent U.S. presidential election and the German federal elections, which only fed my inability to decide what I was most interested in—political science, international studies, or German. Back in Madison, I became more involved in civic engagement and student government, and by the time I was thinking about graduation, I felt strongly that I was not done learning, so the La Follette School’s Accelerated Program was very natural!

Why the La Follette School?
The accelerated MIPA program was appealing to me because it not only combined all my interests, but it made my final undergraduate year more challenging and fulfilling. I was excited about the chance to stay in Madison, take courses from faculty that I hadn’t been able to as an undergraduate, and learn more practical quantitative skills.

How have your La Follette School courses and/or experiences set you on the path to meeting your career goals?
The La Follette School has given me many of the applied writing and quantitative skills that I felt I was missing as an undergraduate. I feel more confident that I have the skills and abilities to succeed post-graduation and to work toward a career in public policy that I enjoy and am able to contribute meaningfully to.

During Summer 2020, I was a project assistant with Professor Associate Professor Tana Johnson, working on projects related to international organizations. During Fall 2020, I was a teaching assistant in the Department of Political Science for Professor Jessica Weeks’s Research Methods in Social Science course. This semester, Spring 2021, I am a lecturer and course coordinator for a research practicum in the Center for Law, Society, and Justice through the Department of Sociology with Professor Emerita Pamela Oliver. It has been especially rewarding to support undergraduate students through the remote learning environment and hopefully help ease the pandemic-related academic challenges in whatever small ways I can.

Summer internship
I was offered an internship with the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Embassy Berlin for Summer 2020, but it was unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19.

Client-based projects
PA 860: Workshop in International Public Affairs: ongoing work with the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin and Focus on Energy to evaluate programs and make recommendations to improve energy assistance for low-income tenants.

PA 881: Cost-Benefit Analysis: worked with the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Service on a cost-benefit analysis of Wisconsin’s potential adoption of an ABLE Disability Savings Account program.

Advice for prospective La Follette School students?
Be open about your policy interests! Even if there is one topic that you are particularly passionate about, it is worth it to take courses in a variety of policy areas. Taking this approach, you learn to automatically draw connections between domestic and international issues or link public health concerns with environmental policy and urban planning. In my experience, this has been a useful and fascinating way to think about public policy.

How has the La Follette School changed the way you think about public policy?
One thing I will take away from my coursework is the interconnectedness of the local and international public policy spaces. Even as a MIPA, I found myself applying so many of the concepts from my coursework into my work experience and volunteer activities, which are mostly with local organizations. Public policy, in my mind, should be about positively affecting communities, no matter their size or location. Understanding and appreciating the local contexts of the people you are trying to help is a fundamental piece of designing and communicating effective public policy.

The Wisconsin Idea
Many of my most meaningful undergraduate and graduate experiences have been informed by the Wisconsin Idea and intentionally thinking about how to bring my classroom experience into the “real world” in a purposeful way. As chair of the Associated Students of Madison and as an election official for the City of Madison I had a chance to apply my classroom experience to local community engagement and advocate for policies in the best interests of my peers. At the La Follette School, working with local clients has been especially rewarding. The Wisconsin Idea is something I’ll take with me wherever I might end up in the world.

Before enrolling in the La Follette School
As an accelerated student, I also completed my undergraduate degree here at UW-Madison. The highlights of my undergraduate career included studying abroad in Freiburg, Germany, for a year through the Academic Year in Freiburg Program (2017-2018) and serving as chair of the Associated Students of Madison (ASM) from April 2019 to September 2020. (Graduate students can get involved with ASM, too.) While in Germany, I interned with the City of Freiburg in the sustainability management office. Through my involvement in ASM, I had the chance work with students and university leadership to advocate for policies at the local, state, and federal levels to improve the undergraduate and graduate student experience. I also worked with BadgersVote and the Morgridge Center for Public Service since 2018 to increase student voter turnout.