Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Thursday, June 11, 2015

PAships let students take on policy questions in multiple arenas

Hilary Shager Hilary Shager

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Organizations interested in hiring a La Follette School PA can learn more about the process online.

La Follette School students can apply the skills they learn in the classroom to real-world work they carry out as project assistants. While PAs often do research and other tasks for La Follette School faculty, some PAships are outside the school.

“Project assistantships with other campus units or with organizations outside the university are an exciting way for our students to use their training to tackle tough policy issues,” says La Follette School Associate Director Hilary Shager. “The positions provide beneficial partnerships between the university and the community; organizations gain highly skilled employees, while students earn a stipend, health insurance and tuition.”

This year, several La Follette School students have PAships with outside entities. Students are working on homelessness, education metrics, and health policy.

Continuing student Demetri Vincze is a PA with the Institute for Community Alliances, a nonprofit organization based in Des Moines, Iowa, that trains and supports homeless service agencies in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Missouri.

"I've mostly been applying broad concepts I am learning at La Follette,” he says. “From my statistical courses, I am applying a differences-in-differences approach to see how the implementation of a more coordinated homeless services system has impacted program performance. I've also used some of the lessons I learned in Public Management to evaluate and discuss the management of these systems. Even more generally, my La Follette experience to this point has taught me the complexity and importance of performance measurement, and helped to improve the clarity of my writing on technical subjects such as this."

As a project assistant with the Evidence-Based Health Policy Project, 2015 graduate Aaron Dumas provided policymakers with timely, non-partisan, high-quality information for evidence-based decision-making. “I conducted legal and policy research for legislators upon request, including interviewing a wide range of public, nonprofit and private professionals,” says Dumas, who is earning dual degrees in public affairs and law. “I also helped develop large briefings for policymakers and the public at the state Capitol on important topics ranging from telemedicine to opioid abuse.”

Dumas says his La Follette School coursework helped him in completing these tasks. “Process classes like policy analysis helped me to produce good work product, while the class I took in health systems, management and policy really help ground me in the subject matter,” he says. “My law school classes also helped me work through legal issues that arose at the Legislative Council.”

Sara Eskrich’s project assistantship with the university’s Population Health Institute has placed her with Covering Kids and Families at the School of Human Ecology. Covering Kids and Families connects people with appropriate insurance coverage and other programs that support health, and it promotes effective use of these programs.

“I am working on their health insurance connection to coverage initiatives, which includes being a federally funded navigator organization under the federal Affordable Care Act,” says Eskrich, who completes her dual degrees in public affairs and public health in August. “I provide technical assistance on ACA questions from CKF staff and partners. I also work to secure funding for CKF by writing independent and federal grants. I am also doing my MPH fieldwork with CKF and writing my capstone on the roles of navigators and consumer assistance in Wisconsin after implementation of ACA.”

Kate Austin also has a PAship through the Population Health Institute. For two years she has worked on What Works for Health, a searchable online database that provides communities evidence-based interventions to address their health needs. “As an evidence analyst, I systematically assess, summarize and rate evidence for a variety of policies and programs that can affect health,” says Austin, who also completes her dual degrees in public affairs and public health in August. “I draft policy descriptions, summaries of evidence and community implementation examples that within the database. The goal is to help bridge the gap between academia and communities, and make well-researched approaches that affect health behaviors, social and economic factors, the physical environment, and clinical care accessible to local policymakers.”

Austin notes she uses her La Follette School training in program evaluation. “I can now identify flaws in study design,” she says. “I synthesize large amounts of information and highlight the most important aspects for policymakers and community leaders. Through my coursework and my project assistantship, I have strengthened my writing skills and work collaboratively to draft content for publication. Finally, I've learned to understand and appreciate the profound impact that economic and social policymaking can have on health outcomes.”

In the education sector, Karole Dachelet applies her La Follette School training on a daily basis as a project assistant with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, the nation’s first laboratory for translational research aimed at improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. “Writing concisely and effectively is emphasized in the Master of Public Affairs program, and I use those skills when I need to communicate large amounts of literature to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab team,” says Dachelet, who plans to graduate in December. “Developing skills in data analysis has prepared me to design research protocols and to accurately evaluate the research of scholars and policy professionals.”

The experience enables Dachelet to participate in all aspects of program development and the research process. “My tasks include conducting interviews, reviewing scholarly articles and policy literature, and analyzing research data. I learn from and work with an amazing group of people who are committed to improving equity outcomes in higher education. I love being part of the team at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.”

Drew McDermott also finds that his project assistantship with Education Analytics is a fantastic opportunity to apply his La Follette School training in the real world. Education Analytics is an organization started by La Follette School professor Robert Meyer to help school districts and their stakeholders with the development and implementation of statistical models to assess the contributions of teachers and school administrators to student academic performance and growth.

“The data analysis and modeling I'm involved with at Education Analytics is a direct extension from many of the concepts I'm developing through the La Follette School’s statistical sequence of courses,” says McDermott, who continues his project assistantship this summer. “Just as valuable, EA's approach to balancing quantitative expertise with policy-relevant decision making captures a core ideal of the La Follette School community and my own set of values.”

“My split role between the policy and data teams allows me to contribute to many different elements of the organization's work,” McDermott adds. “My primary project this semester is working with the Delaware Department of Education to implement new student growth metrics as part of the state's teacher effectiveness and school accountability systems. I'm assisting with all phases of the project, including developing the models the state will use, preparing the state data and running the statistical models, and communicating the measurement process and the student growth results to various education stakeholders in the state. I have the opportunity to see how EA collaborates with its partners as well as how education agencies make decisions about assessing student learning through multiple measures.”