University at Albany
 

"Capitalizing"

How Rockefeller Helps Students Navigate the Road to Washington, D.C.

Alexander Dean
Alexander Dean, MPA '13
Meet homeland security specialist Alexander Dean, MPA Class of 2013. Alex is working in Washington, D.C. as a cybersecurity analyst for a.i. solutions, a NASAcontractor. For Alex, Washington is the place to be, a city buzzing in all aspectsof public service, policy and politics, where opportunities to make a difference in the world abound. "I always had an interest in working for the federal government," says the Albany, New York native, "seeing where that would take me, how I could work for my country and give something back. I fell in love with Washington. It feels like a second home." Alex is one of many Rockefeller students and alums for whom Washington has become headquarters as they pursue studies or establish their careers and credentials, forming support networks that will enhance life and work for years ahead. Rockefeller College has an arsenal of resources in place to make dreams of a D.C.-based career reality and to prepare students for the challenges and excitement of public service in the nation's capital.

That arsenal includes the Semester in Washington (SIW) program for undergraduates, Presidential Management Fellowships for graduate students, an extremely active and engaged Washington alumni network committed to providing guidance and opportunities for Rockefeller students testing the waters of the capital, and the Rockefeller Office of Internships and Career Programs' strategic and customized approach to assisting students embarking on their career paths. The College's high national ranking among schools of public affairs is a feather in the cap of students as they go through the gauntlet of internship, interviewing and hiring processes in Washington. Rockefeller's smaller size and close-knit community allow for more interaction with faculty who can provide invaluable academic and professional guidance and with support staff who shepherd students through résumé, cover letter and internship application preparation. Jennifer Maclaughlin, director of internships and career programs, notes that at Rockefeller, "It's about being strategic. We help students plan how they can get to Washington—the courses and internships that will make them appealing to particular government agencies, the professional skills they'll be required to demonstrate, which alumni they should be introduced to early on."

"I get to play match maker," says Rockefeller Director of Alumni Relations Andrea Lomanto. "Many students reach out to me requesting to be connected with alumni. I listen to what the student is interested in and then I go out and find an alum who fits the bill. Our alumni always respond with such enthusiasm, willing to help our students without hesitation." Rockefeller Advisory Board members located in the D.C. area have even developed a networking breakfast series where Semester in Washington students have a chance to meet and interact with distinguished Washington alumni.

"Taking our students out of the classroom and giving them experiential learning opportunities is critical," emphasizes Rockefeller Dean David Rousseau. Alex's success is a prime example of this approach. Besides pursuing a very current, well-rounded curriculum, Alex spent hundreds of hours in various public sector internships including a position at the New York State Attorney General's Office in Albany, and working in Washington for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an assignment he sees as key to landing his job with a.i. solutions. "The internship with DHS definitely came up several times in my interview process with NASA. If I didn't have that internship, I may not have gotten the offer." Alex ticks off a sampling of his Rockefeller training that made him marketable in D.C. "Models you learn to use, the theory behind them, practicing presentation styles—all have been well received by the executives at NASA," he says. About his growing support network, he happily reports, "The 2014 class has quite a group here. We meet up and go to Nationals games. Everyone is doing really well out of the gate. It's a testament to Rockefeller."

Read on and meet more Rockefeller alumni at work and making a difference in Washington. Their stories illustrate that on the road to D.C. it helps to have a traveling companion like Rockefeller.



 

Frank McStay

Frank McStay, MPA 14

Research Assistant, Brookings Institution

Frank McStay works for the nation's premier think tank, the Brookings Institution, specializing in one of the country's most daunting public policy concerns, health care payment reform, an issue that touches everyone and is critical to the financial future of the U.S. "I work for the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform on the Merkin Initiative, a project designed to look at payment reform from a clinician's perspective. Every eight to ten weeks we do a case study, intended for clinical ears and policymakers," explains Frank.

Investigating solutions to health care issues is more than an intellectual exercise for Frank. It's a personal mission. "I suffered from asthma and multiple other chronic conditions as a child. I had many doctors and multiple entries into the health care system—hospitals, urgent cares, primary care physicians, and dealing with insurance companies from a young age." Frank's father, a retired program manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, also inspired his career choice. "My dad valued service highly and worked for the government his entire life. I thought that was admirable and that's what I wanted to do."

Frank McStay
Frank McStay, MPA 14
Frank moved from Texas to Albany to do his graduate work, selecting Rockefeller over a dozen other top public affairs schools. Besides the school's outstanding academic reputation and Albany's "cooler than Texas" climate, several factors made Rockefeller the smart choice from Frank's point of view: the welcoming spirit of the Rockefeller community, a smaller size that provided more access to professors and potential mentors, and a capital city location that could offer numerous internship opportunities. While at Rockefeller, Frank interned for almost a year at the New York State Association of Health Care Providers (HCP). "New York State is making a sincere effort to make health care more cost effective and affordable," explains Frank. "My internship at HCP had me evaluate a variety of different health care payment and delivery strategies. Brookings found that attractive as they needed a researcher who could hit the ground sprinting. That internship was a very rewarding experience. They not only compensated me well, but they also valued my input and my passion."

Frank credits Rockefeller faculty members Erika Martin, a health care expert who encouraged his focus on quantitative research methods and whom he considers an exceptionally generous and astute mentor, and Stephen Weinberg and Jim Fossett with helping him gain the skills and confidence he needed to work at Brookings. Citing Weinberg's and Fossett's courses in the economic evaluation of health policy and in health care finance, Frank stresses that "if students take those classes and apply them, they'll have a great shot at landing a job in health care." "Rockefeller broadened my view of what I was able to do. When I entered the program, I expected to work for the federal government as a policy analyst after I graduated. But through coursework, informational interviews and job interviewing during my two years at Rockefeller, I realized I possessed the knowledge, skills and abilities to become a researcher. My career opportunities widened and I'm thankful for that."

Surrounded by pretty heady company at Brookings, Frank admits to being star struck when he first arrived. "I work directly with Dr. Kavita Patel—former director of policy for the Office of Public Engagement at the White House— and Dr. Mark McClellan—former FDA chairman and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator, who was responsible for implementing Medicare Part D—to develop policy recommendations for payment reform," says Frank. "Mark is very personable and cordial to all the junior staff. Alice Rivlin is the director of Engelberg and she always has her door open for conversations. I cannot say enough about the scholars at Brookings." It's the perfect setting to practice a piece of advice Frank offers students considering future careers, and a philosophy he personally follows—"Always be willing to challenge yourself."



 

Bethany Lesser

Bethany Lesser, MPA '05, BA '04

Communications Director for U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY)

"I like to live in capitals," says Bethany Lesser, who learned to love politics during dinnertime discussions with her parents in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. She would later move to New York's capital where she received a scholarship from the University at Albany and Rockefeller College to pursue undergraduate studies in political science, and then go on to earn her MPA at Rockefeller with a concentration in management and public policy and political institutions. Now communications director for New York's junior senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bethany is right in the thick of capital city activity in Washington, D.C.

Bethany Lesser
Bethany Lesser, MPA '05, BA '04
What's a day in the life of Bethany like, working in a pivotal position for one of the most visible and active political leaders in the Senate today? "I'm responsible for overseeing the senator's entire press office. We do social media in addition to traditional media and oversee all of the New York City, Upstate, Long Island and national press. I'm Senator Gillibrand's spokesperson as well. There's our short-term focus—what do we want to put out today and reacting to reporters' questions—and our long term strategy—how we want the senator to be defined and the issues we want to work on on a daily basis."

Bethany's success has been the result of spot-on educational choices, her ability to advance through the ranks in her profession, her lifelong interest in politics, and plenty of hard work. She's built her career brick by brick, starting with an undergraduate internship with U.S. Senator Charles Schumer's office, which was followed by a job as deputy regional representative in the senator's Albany office while she was pursuing her MPA at Rockefeller. Eventually she'd make the move to D.C. and become his press secretary. In 2006, she accepted a job offer to become press secretary to her home state of Ohio's newly elected senator, Sherrod Brown. Hungry to work on a competitive campaign, in 2009 she made the bold move to Alaska to work on Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich's successful senate bid to unseat longtime incumbent Ted Stevens. When Kirsten Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2009, Bethany joined her team and after two years became the senator's communications director.

Bethany is quick with tips for students pursuing public service careers. "I highly recommend taking advantage of internships," she says. "They're priceless." She is also a huge fan and alumna of Rockefeller's Semester in Washington program, calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime experience that makes D.C. approachable and where students learn how to be involved in national politics." Bethany sings the praises of the Rockefeller MPA program, especially for the management lessons it exposed her to, lessons she continues to utilize. In particular, Bethany gives kudos and thanks to the Rockefeller network that carefully guided her in the right direction, with deep gratitude to Professors Anne Hildreth, Michael Malbin and Mitch Abolafia. And she is adamant about paying it forward as an engaged Rockefeller D.C. alum eager to help students starting careers in Washington. "It's a city where the more people you know and talk to the easier it is to succeed. Having an alumni network in Washington, D.C. is essential. We're definitely looking out for Rockefeller students and recent graduates," says Bethany.



 

liam fitzsimmons

Liam Fitzsimmons, BA '05

Chief of Staff for Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY-25th)

"It's amazing! Every day is unique, exciting and challenging. I have never worked so hard in my life and I have never had a more rewarding job," says Liam Fitzsimmons of his role as chief of staff for Representative Louise Slaughter. "It's such an honor to work in the Congress. Being able to work for someone who represents Upstate New York, which is where I was born, raised and educated—well, that's the cherry on top." Liam's unbridled enthusiasm for his job is matched only by his steadfast regard for his boss. "She is someone who is listened to and respected. I love the work she does," says Liam. In 2007, Congresswoman Slaughter became the first woman to chair the influential House Committee on Rules, where she helped to bring the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, and the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act to passage. "She is an incredibly hard worker. As the person who manages her work, I can assure you her reputation is well deserved."

Representative Slaughter's ambitious legislative agenda keeps Liam on his toes. One of the biggest challenges of his job is being able to "weave in and out of issues you may not spend all year studying. You have to become an expert very quickly," he notes. "For me it's about looking at a particular conundrum, a problem or some sort of paradox in the world and knowing how to research and dissect it. I would have no concept of how to approach a problem empirically using data and hard research if it wasn't for Rockefeller College. That's a skill that helps me every day. Anecdotally we can answer a lot of questions, but for public policymakers, at least equally as important as anecdotes and personal experiences is the data—what is actually happening out in the world from a broad perspective."

Liam Fitzsimmons, BA '05
Liam Fitzsimmons, BA '05
As chief of staff Liam manages a group of about 20 people in Representative Slaughter's Rochester and Washington offices. "The 'chief' part of the job is really helping my boss to make strategic decisions about her legislative portfolio and to ensure that we can advance her legislative agenda in D.C. and her outreach priorities back home in Rochester," explains Liam. To that end he has much experience to call upon. Liam started his career on the Hill handling foreign affairs and national security issues as a member of the legislative team for former Representative Maurice Hinchey, an opportunity he attributes to connections made while an undergraduate intern at the SUNY/Center for International Development (SUNY/CID) at Rockefeller College. "I found Mr. Hinchey's office because of the relationships I built at Rockefeller. When I was an intern at SUNY/CID, my boss was Jim Ketterer. I also worked for CID's Office of International Programs where I worked with Ambassador Bob Gosende. Jim and Bob were important mentors in my life. Jim was actually the one who made the introduction to the Hinchey office for me."

Another internship had a big impact on Liam's future as well. When he participated in Rockefeller's Semester in Washington program he was assigned to the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. "That experience was a big turning point for me," says Liam. "It made me comfortable with the city. It made me excited about the capital and it gave me the confidence in myself to return to D.C." After managing two successful reelection campaigns for Congressman Hinchey, Liam moved on to become Louise Slaughter's legislative director in 2011. He returned to campaign work in 2012 to run the Congresswoman's bid for reelection. Shortly after, he was named chief of staff. Though his job is 24/7 and he's constantly juggling multiple projects and confronting critical issues on a daily basis, Liam insists his path to Congress has been "more exciting than overwhelming" and he encourages students who think they might like to work in the nation's capital to move to D.C. "That's the way to really commit yourself to your goals and to develop the professional relationships you need to succeed."



 

Amb. Bonnie Jenkins

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, MPA '88

Special Envoy and Coordinator, Threat Reduction Programs, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
U.S. Department of State

Since her 2009 appointment by President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of State has been home base for Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, Coordinator of Threat Reduction Programs for the Department's Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. "My job is to promote programs and activities that the U.S. government dedicated to the prevention of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism," Bonnie explains. "For example, that's making sure that non-state actors with intent to do harm do not get their hands on the nuclear material, the biological pathogens and the chemical precursors that can be used to make a weapon of mass destruction. It involves promoting such U.S. programs internationally and working with other countries that have similar programs and coordinating with them to ensure we're working together on these efforts on a global scale."

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, MPA '88
Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, MPA '88
That's the kind of responsibility to public service Bonnie has been readying herself for since high school days in New York City, and even before. "In my junior high, if one were on the honor roll, a reward for the hard work was a trip to Washington, D.C. I made sure I made the honor roll each year. I loved traveling to the nation's capital and learning about what takes place. That experience was exposure. We met with government officials and visited the federal buildings and monuments and I think that created a spark. I decided I wanted to work there. I also believe that the desire to work in public service has always been ingrained in me; some of that is just the way you see the world from early in one's life." In junior high through college, and through graduate and law school, Bonnie seized opportunity after opportunity to work or intern in government agencies and nonprofits. "One of the reasons I attended school in Albany is because it was the state capital and I knew I could have the wonderful experience of working in a capital environment. I took advantage of that by doing several internships." While enrolled in the joint JD/MPA program offered through Albany Law School and Rockefeller College at the time, Bonnie worked in the U.S. Attorney's Office, the New York State Commission of Corrections and the U.S. Department of Transportation. "The natural next step was to be in Washington working for the federal government," she adds. "

Going to Rockefeller for my MPA put me in position for certain jobs and allowed me to apply for the Presidential Management Fellowship through which I found a position at the Department of Defense. That led me to everything else in Washington and helped me get to where I am today."

As a D.C. insider—in the best sense of the phrase—Ambassador Jenkins is a font of generous and practical advice on how to succeed in Washington. Each spring, she graciously welcomes Rockefeller's Semester in Washington students to a gathering at the State Department. "I try to share any wisdom I may have gleaned about what works in Washington. I enjoy meeting the students and talking with them. Their internships are all so different. It reflects the kinds of inroads the College has made."

As for her best advice on how to succeed in D.C., Bonnie suggests, "Take every job you do seriously. You get a reputation for being a good worker. In a place like Washington, that's very important because so much is still word of mouth, your reputation and who you know. To make it here, you have to be a good people person, a problem solver and negotiator, and have a good support system." It also helps a great deal if you see the world with the eyes of someone who believes in public service, like Bonnie.



 

Michelle Mittler

Michelle Mittler, BA '10

Director of Scheduling and Special Events for
Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (MD-5th)

"Never a dull moment" would be a gross understatement when describing Michelle Mittler's typical workday as director of scheduling and special events for U.S. Representative and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. "Things are just constantly moving and shaking around here," Michelle reports. "Scheduling on the Hill is unlike scheduling anywhere else. You have to hope for the best, expect the worst, really think on your feet, and work with your colleagues to make the best of every situation."

Michelle Mittler, BA '10
Michelle Mittler, BA '10
Such a credo is not surprising when one considers the duties involved in Michelle's role: maintaining Congressman Hoyer's official schedule, travel plans and related records; communicating key scheduling information to staff and security detail; and planning and supervising numerous events throughout the year. Providing a snapshot of life in the office of the Whip, Michelle notes that, "Mr. Hoyer meets with various members of Congress multiple times throughout a week so there's lots of interaction with other offices. There's work with embassies and diplomatic leaders, and meetings with constituents, lobbyists and nonprofits on a regular basis. And the Congressman keeps his eyes on whatever is happening in Maryland government. There truly is a little bit of everything."

Michelle, "happy every day" in her Washington career, wasn't always D.C.- bound. Brought up in Bayside, Queens, New York City was her world, that is until she came to Rockefeller College for undergraduate studies in political science. "My goal was to be a voice that I felt was underrepresented. Taking classes at Rockefeller and being active in the Student Association gave me the tools I needed to articulate and debate on a wide variety of topics." But it was the combination of the Semester in Washington (SIW) program and an internship in the New York State Senate that opened her eyes—and doors—to endless possibilities ahead. "SIW introduced me to Washington in ways I couldn't have imagined, from participating in an internship at the Human Rights Campaign, to writing my thesis in the Library of Congress. Professor Michael Malbin and Adam Kress, who was our teaching assistant, were so hands-on with SIW students, explaining everything and assisting us." So began a journey that carried Michelle through graduate school in D.C. and work for U.S. Representative Paul Tonko, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and back to the Hill to the Office of the Democratic Whip.

Now cheerleading for life and work in Washington, D.C. is second nature to Michelle, and she's happy to share what she has learned with students interested in a career there. "Be involved in extracurricular activities that you are passionate about to make your résumé stand out. While interning, be a sponge to everything happening around you and network as much as you can. And be sure to step out of your comfort zone. This is a city where, when you put in the work and are willing to learn and grow, there can be a great ending."



 

Semester in Washington

Semester in Washington

"Being able to live and intern in the nation's capital was one of the best experiences of my undergraduate career," says BA/MPA student Mikayla Myers, a member of the 2014 contingent that traveled to D.C. to participate in Rockefeller's Semester in Washington (SIW) program. "I would do it all over again." SIW has been inspiring a passion for politics and public affairs in students since 1998 when the College first launched the program and sent eight students to study and work in Washington for the spring semester. New York State Assemblywoman Addie Russell was a UAlbany undergrad at the time and a member of the inaugural SIW class. "Being able to go to Washington as an intern provided me with an inside view of what really goes on. I wanted to learn about the job and the environment before I decided if it was something I wanted to do," says Addie. "It was during the Clinton administration and I was interning for Vice President Gore. It was very exciting for me to have a front row seat in an administration that I identified with heavily and that had brought so much energy and excitement to young democrats everywhere."

"Life- changing" is how Rockefeller's Director of Internships and Career Programs Jennifer Maclaughlin describes SIW. "Students come back with a different perspective on their education and career goals," she says. "They have purpose and clarity that only comes from working in a professional environment and being away from home." Open to juniors and seniors, SIW allows students to earn 15 credits while taking classes, completing an internship and writing a research paper that reflects the student's special interest in a particular topic. They also have numerous opportunities to meet political leaders, network with alumni, and get an inside view of politics and the nation's capital itself— museums, monuments, landmarks, recreational sites, social life.

"What distinguishes Rockefeller's program is that it's not just about the semester. It's about working with the whole student who's coming to the program with interests and a background," says Rockefeller College Political Science Professor and SIW program founder Michael Malbin. "We try to think about what students' strengths are, what their passions are, what they care about. I want these students to have a better understanding of themselves, a better understanding of the variety of opportunities out there, and how to fit the two together."

This past spring, Rockefeller sent 25 students to Washington, the largest group ever. Tim Curran, a public policy major and MPA student, interned with the Republican National Committee's Digital and Data Department while he was in D.C. "The most valuable part of the program was having the opportunity to meet with Rockefeller alumni based in the Washington area," says Tim. "They were all very insightful and gracious."

SIW is designed with continuity for the student in mind. "The program is integrally connected with the student's undergraduate academic career," says Professor Malbin. "Courses are counted toward the major, students work with their own advisors, and full-time Rockefeller faculty teach in Washington and stay in touch with students' advisors. It's not an isolated, separate experience. It's 'away' geographically, but not 'away' academically." For more information, please visit www.albany.edu/rockefeller/siw.



 

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 Rockefeller College News Magazine.