Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, June 10, 2011

Rabbach develops skills to advance collaboration

Justin Rabbach had a great spring break trip.

The week he spent in Nicaragua only reinforced his decision to earn a Master of International Public Affairs degree from the La Follette School.

Justin Rabbach and a friend in Nicaragua.


After graduating in May 2012, Justin Rabbach worked briefly with the Wisconsin Homeland Security Council compiling and editing the 2012-2015 Wisconsin Homeland Security Strategy and the 2012 Wisconsin Homeland Security Council Annual Report for presentation to the governor. He then joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America World Hunger as a youth group organizer. In 2014 he became director of mission engagement for the Board of World Mission of the Moravian Church in North America.

Summer Internship

Justin Rabbach spent the summer of 2011 interning with the U.S. State Department in Honduras.

Public Service

In addition to his service as a mission leader for the Moravian Church, Justin Rabbach is vice president of the La Follette School Student Association for 2011-2012. As a financial specialist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison's Center for Leadership and Involvement he provides budget oversight and organizes financial transactions and accounting records. He also tutors campus athletes.

In March, the first-year student returned to Nicaragua for the fifth time to visit a community where he had led several volunteer service trips. "My first trip was to do assessments of damage caused by Hurricane Felix in 2007," Rabbach says. "The next three were heavily construction oriented, and I led teams of college-aged youth to assist in the re-building of homes and churches. My spring break trip this year was a chance to view the completed projects — the homes and churches that had not been finished upon my departure."

Rabbach and his team made new contacts with a health clinic to assess needs and the feasibility of medical teams visiting the area. In addition, he talked with school administrators about training teachers to use computers the European Union had donated. "Training the teachers is necessary so that they can teach the students," he says. "The computers were given without taking the time to teach the software, and future teams will be able to help the community to utilize the donation."

Rabbach's second stop was to meet with individuals to help begin planning a drug rehabilitation clinic that the Moravian church's Board of World Mission would help to build on Nicaragua's Atlantic coast. "This clinic is a need given the large impact of the drug trade in the area," Rabbach says. "The courts send many adolescents to prisons in Managua, the capital, away from their families and put them into a system that offers no rehabilitation assistance, effectively dooming many of these young people to lives of recurring drug issues and prison terms."

Prior to enrolling at La Follette, Rabbach spent a year with the Moravian board as a communications and development intern visiting communities and checking on projects. "I was the person to send wherever," Rabbach says. His work involved him in projects in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Canada, Israel and Jamaica. The year built on his experiences leading volunteer service trips for college students to support Board of World Mission projects. This summer, he plans to intern with the U.S. State Department in Honduras, pending his security clearance.

The 2011 spring break trip was inspiring because Rabbach witnessed the results of his work. "For the three hurricane relief trips I led, we would work hard on one construction project and then have to leave before a project was completed," Rabbach says. "Maybe I'd hear an update. As an intern and then over spring break, I got to see the results of the communities continuing to work on the projects. Now, most of the rebuilding is done and the focus is more on community development."

That is where the La Follette School degree comes in. "When I was in Costa Rica and Nicaragua during my internship, I started to realize that if I had the right skill set, I could be more effective on the ground," Rabbach says. "I need the tools to manage funds, assess programs, evaluate community needs."

With those tools, Rabbach knows he will be better able to advance collaborative processes. "It was a big thing, returning to those clinics and communities, to be able to form partnerships and say 'Let's prioritize together. Should we build a school first or is a well more important so the kids stay healthy and are able to attend school regularly?' A good assessment means that decision-makers are not necessarily listening to just the loudest voice. The larger picture needs to be considered."

"The Master of International Public Affairs degree will provide me the skill set I need to focus the energy and passion I have for service and community and relationship-building into tangible efforts," he says. "I will be able to better assess a population's needs, analyze the different policy options and the effects of each. I will be a stronger asset to the people I work alongside because of my education at La Follette."

Rabbach grew up attending a Moravian church in Watertown, near where he lived in Johnson Creek, about 35 miles east of Madison. While sightseeing with other college students in Europe he became acquainted with other individuals with a passion for international volunteer work. "We had common interests in travel and volunteering, and they were the connections to the work I am doing now," Rabbach says. "That next January I set off for Nicaragua to volunteer. Since then I've taken one trip after another."

Over winter break, Rabbach traveled to Israel with a sightseeing group and connected with a group called Pilgrims of Ibilin, an organization providing educational opportunities that do not discriminate based on religious affiliation. "The hope of this organization is to build peace in the region from the bottom up, starting by getting the kids to work, play and learn together," Rabbach says. "Second, we worked with a ministry of the Moravian Church in Ramallah called Star Mountain, a school for children and adults with developmental disabilities. We met and worked with the children in their classes and with adults doing vocational training. This was an amazing opportunity to work alongside what can be a forgotten population (developmentally disabled individuals) within another marginalized population (Palestinians)."

His religious faith is a large driver in his desire to serve others. "My motivation and calling come from my faith and shape the way in which I approach the work I have had an opportunity to do," he says. "My faith drives my passion for public service."

He appreciates the opportunity to think about his experiences in a graduate school setting. "To receive a graduate-level education puts me, relatively, into a very privileged cross section of the world," Rabbach says. "For me, it is important and rewarding to be able to have an outward focus in the work that I do.

Rabbach also appreciates the small size of the La Follette School and the close community students form during their first semester. "We have a real sense that we're moving through this experience together, on a day-to-day basis," he says. "It's inspiring to see so many intelligent and involved people who can push and challenge each other to go forward and apply what we are learning."

Of all Rabbach's development projects, he is proudest of the reconstruction of a church in the Nicaraguan community of Sisin, which he revisited in March after helping with reconstruction. "Churches serve as gathering places for entire communities," he says, "and the buildings are used for everything, so rebuilding them after a natural disaster like a hurricane is important."

"It was a massive reconstruction that involved making the bricks by hand," he says. By working together, we were able to start the process and get it off the ground. Being able to return multiple times and now see it completed was just another experience that motivates me to continue this type of work."

Last modified on Tuesday, November 18, 2014