Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, March 27, 2013

O'Connell acquires technical skills to make positive impact

Joe O'Connell


After graduating in 2013 with a Master of Public Affairs, Joe O'Connell joined the Wisconsin Department of Health Services budget and policy analyst.

After 13 years in the information technology industry, Joe O'Connell took a step back when he realized he did not find the work all that satisfying.

"I started to wonder about the kind of mark I wanted to leave on the world," he says. "I had always known in the abstract that, regardless of scale, I wanted to make a positive impact on people and on society. That quickly led me to realize that I needed to switch gears from having passive aspirations to taking action."

O'Connell eventually settled on public affairs and considered programs in Michigan and Minnesota. "However, my longtime girlfriend had the University of Wisconsin–Madison in her sights as her top choice for her Ph.D. program," says O'Connell, who completed his bachelor's degree in international relations at Michigan State University in 2010. "In the interest of our relationship, I looked into Wisconsin and discovered the La Follette School. The more I learned about the program, the more appealing I found it to be. Although I had a tough time deciding between the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota and La Follette, professor Don Moynihan played a pivotal role in my choice of La Follette. His receptiveness and genuineness provided for my comfort and confidence in my choice."

The decision has been a good one. "The small class sizes, the smart and engaging classmates, the brilliant professors, the helpful and caring staff members, and the challenging and thought-provoking learning environment are difficult to replicate, if not unmatched, elsewhere," O'Connell says. "The Progressive roots of the school, planted and nurtured by our namesake — Fighting Bob La Follette — along with the all-encompassing, collaborative, progressive culture fostered by the Wisconsin Idea create an ideal environment for studying and executing sound public policy. And if all of that were not already more than enough reason to choose La Follette, the lakes, the Terrace and the microbreweries are."

The close-knit community of La Follette students is another benefit, says O'Connell, who has participated in many student volunteer events, including helping at Second Harvest food pantry, cleaning up a Madison park, taking the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics and contributing homebrewed beer to the school's summer picnic.

The La Follette School's small size fosters this sense of community in the classroom as well. "The small teacher-to-student ratio helps me feel more engaged and more visible to my professors," O'Connell says. "In addition, I feel that it encourages more frequent, more productive and livelier class discussion."

Although he was initially apprehensive about the Master of Public Affairs program's quantitative aspects, O'Connell appreciates the opportunity La Follette affords to learn technical skills that can be applied in many policy settings. "The La Follette School has enlightened me on the great importance and critical nature of rigorous quantification," he says. "Such approaches and skills serve to transform the conversation from vague and abstract ideas, assumptions and views into concrete, well-supported facts, statistics, conclusions and policies."

He saw this play out in his fall cost-benefit analysis course. "In working with a real client, I learned two notable things. First, no matter how straightforward an issue may at first appear to be, it always ends up being significantly more complex. Second, the experience confirmed much of what I had learned in my La Follette coursework and illuminated its applicability."

Now in his last semester, O'Connell is focusing his studies on finance and budgeting, particularly at the state and local levels. He ultimately sees himself conducting policy research and analysis, perhaps for a nonprofit, an environmental policy research organization or a consulting firm.

For his summer internship, O'Connell worked for a Wisconsin state senator. "In that role I performed policy research and analysis as well as constituent services," says O'Connell, who has a project assistantship as an information technology administrator with the campus Department of Urban and Regional Planning. "While I thoroughly enjoyed researching issues, such as driver's license requirements and the potential for a bottle deposit in Wisconsin, my most gratifying moment came when an Afghanistan war veteran contacted me because he was in imminent jeopardy of losing the tuition reimbursement to which he was entitled, and I was able to secure it for him."

— updated November 6, 2013