Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, December 30, 2013

Toniolo helps strengthen communities

Maria Toniolo


After completing her master's degree in 2014, Maria Toniolo became an analyst with the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau.

Maria Toniolo is broadening her expertise in international trade, finance and economic development through the La Follette School's Master of International Public Affairs degree program.

"I've always had an interest in international affairs since I was young, probably stemming from the fact that both my parents are from Greece," the second-year student says.

She graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in December 2009 with a degree in international studies and economics after spending the fall of 2008 in Spain on a study-abroad. "While I was in Spain, my family experienced many hardships, both economic and personal," Toniolo says. "The events unfolding in Greece in the years since have particularly influenced my decision to pursue a degree in international public affairs. I'm interested in learning about financial crises, why they occur and how they can be prevented."

Toniolo has a variety of experience in the nonprofit sector. After graduating, she worked through AmeriCorps for Easter Seals Wisconsin as a disabilities awareness liaison. "I researched methods for teaching youth about disabilities, and I conducted outreach to local schools, teachers and other youth group leaders to present the awareness curriculum to school-aged children," Toniolo says. "In addition, I helped plan and coordinate events, including a campaign for 'Spread the Word to End the Word' (to end the use of the r-word), a volunteer event for Global Youth Service Day that involved bringing a youth group to a nursing home so they could experience what it was like to work with people with disabilities, and an information booth at a resource fair for Autism Speaks."

She then joined Dane County UW Extension's Financial Education Center as a volunteer coordinator, a position funded through United Way of Dane County and an AmeriCorps grant. Toniolo recruited volunteers for two services, one a financial coaching program in which community members who wanted someone to hold them accountable for reaching financial goals are matched with coaches. The second program was a volunteer income tax assistance site primarily for low-income, elderly, or disabled taxpayers. "In addition to administering these programs, I compiled and analyzed data on the progress of the coaching program participants to determine the ideal amount and type of coaching needed to achieve the program's goals," Toniolo says.

Toniolo pursued her interests in the environment and human rights through two internships last summer. She worked on development for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, having helped with a big fund-raising event in June. She put her organizational skills to work again for the Wisconsin Women's Network's fund-raising event for Women's Equality Day in August. For the 2013-14 school year, she is serving as secretary for the La Follette School Student Association.

These experiences, plus the quantitative skills she is learning at La Follette, will transfer readily to work in international development, Toniolo says.

Her La Follette School training has been useful at her internships, Toniolo says. "The skills I use most are those I learned in policy analysis, basically when trying to make a decision between various options I think of every party involved and how they will be affected by each alternative. I also think having knowledge of how policies are made helped me obtain my two internships."

"What I especially like about La Follette is its size and flexibility," Toniolo adds. "I think the fact that UW is a huge university affords our students so many opportunities to get involved in various activities and take courses in other degree programs. At the same time, the La Follette School's program size is small with a class of about 50-60 students, which allows more individualized attention from the staff and professors. I love that everyone knows me by name!"

After she graduates, Toniolo hopes to put her organizing skills to work in an international development context. "Public service is important to me because it helps strengthen communities," she says. I think it's important for everyone to have equal opportunities, and for children to have positive role models. I realize how fortunate I have been in my life, and I know not everyone has the same opportunities that I have been granted. I want to be able to make the world a better place."

Last modified on Thursday, November 13, 2014