Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, February 25, 2013

Pugh explores education policy

For Christa Pugh, education is the key for people who are poor or underserved by society to improve their lives.

Schoolchildren mostly facing away from camera, toward teacher Christa Pugh in front of chalkboard on blue wall. Chalkboard has English lesson on it.

Above: Christa Pugh teaches English in Rwanda. Below: Pugh and two of her students in Liberia.

Christa Pugh and two girls

"I hope that by working in education policy, I will be able to empower students to achieve the goals they set for themselves," the first-year public affairs student says.

Pugh has been working in education since her sophomore year at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, when she volunteered to teach a weekly beginner English class to Georgetown custodial workers who wanted to develop their English skills. "Since then, I've been working with education in a very hands-on sense, by teaching English and working with an after-school program," Pugh says. "Now I want to have a bigger impact on the systemic problems I've seen. I'm especially interested in early literacy because I've seen firsthand how older students and adults struggle when they don't have the opportunity to develop basic literacy skills from an early age."

After completing her bachelor's degree in 2008, Pugh worked for a Washington, D.C., after-school program through AmeriCorps. She then joined the Peace Corps and taught English in Rwanda and Liberia for three years.

Interested in living in the Midwest, Pugh chose to pursue a master's degree in domestic public affairs. "I'm still interested in working on international issues but I want to keep my options open," says Pugh, who is from Rochester, Minnesota.

"The challenges students and teachers face in different educational contexts around the world are actually quite similar in a lot of ways, although they may differ in scale," Pugh adds. "For example, teachers in the U.S. and abroad have to figure out the best way to make use of limited resources or to educate a classroom full of students with different learning styles. I think the practical skills I'm learning at La Follette will be useful at any organization I work for, whether it focuses on domestic or international issues."

During the fall, Pugh worked as an hourly project assistant for an educational psychology research project's data collection. "I went with a team of grad students to three elementary schools to administer reading and literacy tests and to record the results," Pugh says. "It was interesting to learn about the process of administering and scoring standardized tests since that wasn't something I had to deal with in Peace Corps."

In the spring, Pugh, whose tuition is covered by a fellowship, started a project assistantship with the campus PEOPLE Program, which works with students of color and low-income students to help them prepare for college. As internship liaison, Pugh is coordinating and supervising internships for students in the summer program. She will continue with the program full time this summer.

At La Follette, Pugh is pleased that her experience has fulfilled her expectations. "From the moment I first stepped into the La Follette house, La Follette felt much more personal to me than the other programs I visited," Pugh says. "On my visit day, I was able to meet with several professors and program administrators. I sat in on a class. Afterward, two La Follette students with interests similar to mine approached me to chat about the program. Everyone I met was very friendly and spoke very positively about La Follette, which meant a lot to me."

The ready access to professors continued after Pugh enrolled. "I appreciate being in classes that are small enough that professors encourage students to ask questions and make comments throughout their lectures," she says. "Professors are very approachable, and I feel comfortable asking questions in class or outside of class. Although UW–Madison is huge, I never feel lost in the shuffle — if I have a question about which class to take, an internship opportunity, or anything else I know I can go to the La Follette house for advice."

"I like being part of a program in which the administrators, my professors and my classmates know my name, my background and my interests," Pugh says. "I would advise a prospective student to think about the program's value for the money — it's an excellent program but relatively inexpensive compared to other schools. Finally, Madison is a great place to live, and I think it's important to choose a school in a location where you'll be happy. I love living in a city with lots of opportunities for volunteering or internships, many interesting restaurants and events, and great public transportation."

The educational opportunities are the top benefit of the La Follette program. Pugh is pleased that she will be able to take courses in other departments, including education policy, educational psychology or educational leadership. "Students at La Follette are part of a small, personal program, but they also have access to the many resources of a large university," Pugh says.

Students also have access to La Follette School alumni working in a variety of fields who are willing to help students with class projects, mentoring and networking. Wisconsin Department of Health Services deputy Medicaid director Marlia (Moore) Mattke, a 2004 alum, helped Pugh's group in the introductory public management course with its examination of a change in how DHS administers income maintenance benefits. "Marlia was very helpful throughout the project, from narrowing down our topic to putting the final touches on our paper," Pugh says. "It was also very encouraging to hear her talk about how her La Follette degree has helped her in her career."

The technical skills Pugh is adding to her portfolio will help her pursue her goal of working for a nonprofit education organization. "Quantitative analysis skills are highly valued in the nonprofit world, so I anticipate that these courses will set me apart," Pugh says. "I think learning how to approach problems analytically and use facts and data to find the best answer will be a useful skill in any job."

"I've always felt happiest and most fulfilled when I'm working to help individuals in my community improve their lives," Pugh adds. "I've had a lot of advantages in my life, and I think it's very important to use my education and experiences to help others."

Christa Pugh and many students in school uniform standing outside on steps of building.

Christa Pugh and her students in Liberia.