The Road to Fels: Picking Penn and Public Service

February 06, 2010

By: Melissa Field, 2nd year, full-time MGA  student

I was a high school student when the Good Friday Agreement passed and I read the announcement in awe.  This is the place, I thought.  Northern Ireland is the place where peace is possible.  We all have our moments.  Moments that pull us, moments that make us want to be better, to try harder.  Something about the Irish Peace Accord struck me.  As a University of Colorado student I spent my junior year studying abroad in Northern Ireland and wrote an honors thesis on US involvement there.   This thesis gave me a summa cum laude honors designation, but there was something missing.  I didn't just want to be smart:  I wanted to be a part of things.  I wanted to make a difference.   I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a public servant.  And then I got a phone call.

The phone call came from James Lyons, the former US economic envoy to Northern Ireland under Clinton.  I had interviewed Lyons for my thesis and was thoroughly intimidated.  He was smart, well respected, and tough.  "I read your thesis, and I'd like to offer you a job," he said. And my dream job fell into my lap just like that.   Five years later, after being mentored by some of the best public servants in the country, including Lyons, I had high expectations for myself and for a graduate school that could take me to the next moment in my career. 

A lot of people thought I should go to law school, but I didn't want to be a lawyer.  I know many lawyers are public servants, but why spend three years of your life and thousands of dollars on something that is not exactly what you want to do?  I had to make the best decision for me, so I picked public affairs and applied to six schools.

I got into four out of the six schools I applied to, and narrowed my choices to two:  Penn and another well-respected program.  Both schools offered sizable scholarships and even though Fels ranked a little lower in public affairs rankings, I knew the Ivy League brand would bode well for my future.  I didn't plan on staying in Philadelphia post-graduation, and I needed a school that would carry well throughout the country, not just locally, and Penn would certainly do that.

Prior to visiting either, the other program was still my top choice.  I was shocked, however, at its size.  It was huge. When I visited for Prospective Student Day, I was reminded of my undergraduate experience trying to garner personal attention and I wasn't keen to repeat that.  Even though they gave me a sizeable scholarship, the cost of living relative to that in Philadelphia negated my scholarship benefit.  I currently pay $600 a month to live within walking distance to Penn.

I visited Fels after falling out of love with my top choice and so I hoped it would impress me.  If not, I'd have to go back to the drawing board.  I wasn't willing to settle.  Fels, however, was completely different.  It was small and familial.  The students knew each other, the professors knew the students, and the Fels mansion felt like a home.  The professors at Penn did more than earn degrees and write books, they actually worked in the field.  The professor of budgeting is a budget director.  This may seem like common sense, but many schools believe have a PhD alone is enough.  It's not. How can you know what it's like to solve problems in the public sector unless you've done it?  When you interview someone for a job, you don't ask if she's read about the subject, you ask if she's done it, and done it well.  I was glad that Fels asked this question of my instructors for me.

My only remaining concern was Fels' focus on local politics.  At the time, I was more interested in national and international topics.  When I learned that I could take courses tailored to my interests at any school in Penn, for example, Wharton's business and public policy program or Annenberg's communications program, I was completely sold.  In the end, I was also able to supplement my coursework with a summer internship at the Department of State so I was able to keep true to my international focus while having my eyes opened to local politics.  And when I became interested in public health, a Fels staff member, attuned to my newfound interest and talent, helped me secure an internship at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, one the the best children's hospitals in the country.

I will walk away from Fels with a well-respected degree, a practical and applicable skill set, excellent internship experience, new interests, and less debt than I would have have accrued elsewhere.  So when that next moment triggers my interest, when that next phone call comes for a dream job, I can safely say I am more than ready.

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