Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Michael Zell, MIPA & Strategic Innovation Certificate

Michael Zell, right Michael Zell, right

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Northfield, MN

Undergraduate education
Bachelor’s degree in political science, minor in sociology, University of Minnesota, 2018 (Go Gophers!)

Professional/research interests
I came to the La Follette School wanting to focus on security policy but have since become interested in so many different areas.

Expected graduation date
May 2020

Why a MIPA?
My interest in this field came as a senior in high school. My AP Government teacher was also a state senator from Minnesota, and he showed me how interesting and impactful this field can really be. After that, I had so many incredible professors at the University of Minnesota who continued to pique my interest in this field and made me want to continue studying it at a higher level.

Why the La Follette School?
I had lived in the Minneapolis area my whole life and was ready to go somewhere else. I knew I wanted to remain at a large campus, similar to Minnesota, and thanks to reciprocity with Wisconsin, the La Follette School offered the best return on investment as well as an area I could view as a home.

I also spent a lot of time speaking with Jeff Wendorf, vice president of advancement at the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association. I was good friends with his son at Minnesota and over the years Mr. Wendorf has become a really great mentor to me. He really helped sell me on Wisconsin and convinced me that a lifelong Gopher could become a Badger. I owe a lot to Mr. Wendorf and am truly grateful for all of his help and support over the years.

Career goals
After graduation I’m hoping to move to Chicago and begin a career as a researcher analyst or consultant in the private or nonprofit sector.

How have your La Follette School courses and/or experiences set you on the path to meeting your career goals?
The best thing the La Follette School has done for me is strengthened my quantitative skills. When I first started grad school, I was a bit worried about being enrolled in classes such as statistics, but I am very grateful for it now. These skills helped me secure an internship and make me a much more well-rounded student and job candidate.

Summer internship
This past summer, I was the Office of Public Policy intern for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), a position I still hold and will until graduation.

Most of my work is in economic development for the state of Wisconsin. The main part of my job is to conduct in-depth economic research and create reports to assist on projects for the Office of Public Policy and other WEDC departments. I also often collaborate with my department’s legislative liaison to help provide information to state legislators at the Capitol.

Sample internship project
I compiled in-depth data on every county in the state for determining which counties were to be defined as “distressed counties.” It was one of the first assignments I got where I was working completely independently, and my findings had a lot of ramifications on some of the programs the state would offer to these counties. It took me about a week to complete the project and present my findings. It was really cool to see my hard work pay off in a major way and receive gratitude from people in my office who I didn’t even know yet.

What experiences and skills helped you get the internship?
Improving my quantitative skills was definitely the biggest thing that helped me get the internship. But along with that, just general people skills and being able to work either independently or with others and often be able to turn around projects on a tight deadline all are incredible useful skills.

What courses have you taken in which you’ve done work for real clients?
In Cost Benefit Analysis (PA 881), our client was Mali Kalanso, a nonprofit organization that works to provide better education for students in rural Mali. It was a great experience, and I was very lucky to have not only a great client, but also really incredible group members.

Helpful alumni, staff, students
Maddie Morgan (MPA 2019) helped me a lot with securing my internship. She was working at WEDC in a different capacity at the time and notified me of the posting for the internship. She also helped prepare me for the job interview and put in a good word for me as well. I really owe a lot to her.

Advice for prospective La Follette School students
When I was looking at schools for undergrad, my dad gave me three pieces of advice that I also used when deciding on a graduate program: 1. Can this place get you to the next level? 2. Is it a good price-to-value ratio? 3. Can you see yourself calling this place home?

These are three really great things to think about when looking at programs. For me, the La Follette School checked all three of those boxes, and I think for everyone else it’s just about finding that same place for yourself.

Most challenging La Follette School experience
The La Follette School has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone. I’ve never had any problem doing that but coming here has continuously pushed me over and over to do so. Moving to Madison was the first time I’d ever left the Twin Cities area, something that I really struggled with initially. Along with that, just forcing myself to take classes that I may not be comfortable with or have any experience in. Time after time the La Follette School has pushed me to do new things, and I’m very grateful for it.

Most rewarding La Follette School experience
The most rewarding thing for me has just been in general the success I have found here. I’ve always cared deeply about my academics, but I have never been the most incredible student. Coming here and finding success and showing myself that I could tackle grad school has been very rewarding to me.

The Wisconsin Idea
I was not familiar with the Wisconsin Idea before coming to the La Follette School, but in my short amount of time here, I’ve since come to adopt it. Through my internship in economic development, I try and apply it to my projects and the work I do across the state. I’m grateful that my time at UW–Madison has allowed me to come in contact with so many people who are an embodiment of this idea.

Before the La Follette School
Before coming to the La Follette School, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota. I actually worked at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs for three years. My initial plan was to attend graduate school there, but after 22-plus years in Minneapolis, I was ready for something new.

Anything else?
If there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I’m a diehard Minnesota sports fan. And yes, it’s as miserable as it sounds. 

People would be surprised if they knew that I …
am a big movie buff. I love going to movies, and since moving to Madison I’ve learned to love going to movies by myself. This is the best time of the year to be a movie fan.