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University of Delaware alumnus Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is scheduled to be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday, Jan. 20. During his 36 years in the U.S. Senate and his eight years as vice president, Biden often returned to UD to speak with faculty and students about public policy and the value of good government.
Article by Diane Stopyra and Artika Casini | Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Evan Krape and courtesy of Eric Johnson, Wei-Ming Chen, Jennifer Daniels and Matt Garlipp
In 1961, an 18-year-old first-year student and a new public policy division both made their debuts at the University of Delaware.
Sixty years on, Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is about to be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, the culmination of a lifetime spent in public service. Meanwhile, that public policy division — now an independent school, within the University, that bears the president-elect’s name — has also enjoyed a sterling record of public service. And, just like the six-term senator from Delaware, it is likely to find the spotlight shining a little brighter these days.
To understand the value of an education from UD’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, ranked 38 of 269 national programs, one must first understand its mission. Just as Biden was prompted to enter politics by the unrest he saw brewing in the streets of Wilmington before and during the riots of the Civil Rights Movement, the Biden School grew out of that same climate. With a grant from the Ford Foundation, the unit — then the Division of Urban Affairs — was tasked with solving big societal problems, particularly poverty and racial discord. The goal may not have been new, but the approach was entirely novel.
“People tend to look at things through disciplinary lenses, but the world doesn’t exist in that context,” said Dan Rich, University Professor of Public Policy, who is writing a book on the history of the Biden School. “Poverty does not come bundled as just a political or economic or social or psychological or physical problem, for example — it’s all of those. So what is distinctive about this school? Well, for one thing, it is distinctly interdisciplinary.”
For another, the school, to which Joe Biden lent his name, has always been committed to bridging the gap between the world of ideas and the world of action: “This means you need people who are willing to not just teach and study an issue, but to go out and apply that research,” Rich said. “It is about understanding the nature of the challenges in a community — and then addressing them.”
This commitment to moving beyond the so-called ivory towers of academia to tackle local, national and global problems manifests in several ways for the students at UD, whose public policy concentrations span the fields of education, transportation, education, urban affairs, health, public finance and more.
“We have taken great pride that, as a small state, we are able to give opportunities to our students they are not able to achieve elsewhere,” said Maria Aristigueta, dean and Charles P. Messick Chair of Public Administration of the Biden School. “In addition to our world-class academic programs, our placement rate is so high, and I really do attribute that to the fact that our students are getting such fabulous, real-world experiences.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Celebrating the naming of the Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware are (from left) John Cochran, chairman of the Board of Trustees; former Vice President Joe Biden; UD President Dennis Assanis; and Maria Aristigueta, dean of the Biden School.
Take Hafsah Mansoori, a junior public policy major who said she was first drawn to the Biden School because of her admiration for the president-elect — like many Blue Hens, she has been able to engage (and take a selfie) with the distinguished alumnus several times on campus — but she soon developed a genuine passion for the field of public policy. Mansoori secured an internship in the office of Delaware Gov. John Carney, who earned his master’s degree in public administration (MPA) from UD. In this role, she researched ways to lower incarceration rates in the state, an experience she called “once in a lifetime.”
During the summer of 2020, through the school’s world-renowned Biden Institute research center, Mansoori also interned with the Alaska Wilderness League, which lobbies Congress and generates support for protecting the wild lands and waters of America’s 49th state. And, in the spring of 2021, she will serve as one of the Biden School’s paid legislative fellows, meaning she has been selected to assist Delaware lawmakers in addressing critical issues, including the rollout of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.
“I did not expect I would have access to so many wonderful opportunities,” Mansoori said. “The Biden School has allowed me to get my feet wet in a variety of fields, so I can make a confident decision about what path to take after graduation.”
John Cohill, a junior public policy major, also secured an internship through the Biden Institute last summer. Working with the Active Minds nonprofit, a national organization that seeks to destigmatize the conversation surrounding mental health for young people, he collaborated with team members around the country on transitioning a robust event lineup to a virtual format during the ongoing pandemic.
“I’ve learned that public policy is not limited to the walls of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Public policy is about creating change that benefits the greater good, and that is important in every business, every organization, every school. So this degree program opens doors and allows you to establish valuable connections.”
Joe Biden visited campus in 2017 and met with Biden School (then named the School of Public Policy and Administration) faculty members.
Distinguished alumni, who include Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first woman and Black person to represent Delaware in Congress, attest that this type of hands-on experience offers a leg-up in the job market. When Kristie Mikus was earning her master’s in public administration from the Biden School in the early aughts, she had an opportunity to live in West Africa for three months, where she trained newly elected mayors on democractic processes and, amid so many in-the-street funerals, educated officials on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This experience altered the trajectory of her career — following graduation, she returned to Africa where, in Zambia, she became the country coordinator for the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched by then-President George W. Bush in 2003. In this role, Mikus served as lead on two of Bush’s trips to Zambia and hosted the likes of Bill Gates and Gloria Steinem.
“I could not be a bigger cheerleader for Delaware’s MPA program,” said Mikus, who returned to the United States and spent the last 16 months working as a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is run by the most compassionate, experienced professionals — truly. While I was away, they were a constant support system, and they have become lifelong mentors. To this day, I seek their advice when I’m making decisions. The people at UD made all the difference in my career.”
Delaware State Sen. Elizabeth Lockman, who graduated from UD in 2015 with a master’s in urban affairs and public policy, had a similarly transformative experience on campus. During her time as a student, she completed a fellowship with Wilmington’s City Council which, she said, “laid the groundwork” for her path to the state Senate. But she never really left UD behind — today, she serves as an adjunct professor at the University, introducing a new generation of Blue Hens to the power of a public policy degree.
“It is hard to overstate just what a tremendous impact the school has,” she said. “I think it has always been like that, but now it has a name that accurately projects the magnitude of what can happen in that division of the University.”
Practical experiences aside, those familiar with the Biden School point to another distinguishing factor: A focus on civil discourse. A few years ago, before he announced his candidacy for president, Joe Biden attended a faculty meeting at the University, where he appealed to UD’s faculty to help him elevate the country’s steadily deteriorating rhetoric. Among the Blue Hen leaders who took this plea to heart? Philip Barnes, assistant professor in the Biden School’s Institute for Public Administration (IPA) who graduated from UD in 2015 with a doctorate in urban affairs and public policy.
“It goes to the very foundation of what public policy is,” said Barnes, who earned his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in engineering at the University of Michigan. “This field is about solving important problems that affect a community. And when you cannot speak to one another, when you cannot understand one another, when you cannot even agree there is a problem that needs to be addressed in the first place, those problems go unsolved. We don’t have to agree on everything, but we do need to inhabit the same reality.”
In the fall semester of 2020, Barnes devoted a unit in one of his courses to the value of what scholars call “dialogue across difference” and how to achieve it. But this attention to civil discourse is woven into the culture of the Biden School on a broader level, too. It begins, he said, with an egalitarian faculty that has great respect for student voices. Case in point: a student advisory board that, among other duties, helps dictate the Biden Institute’s robust guest-speaker lineup. Recent high-profile examples include Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to win a presidential caucus; Ana Navarro, Republican political strategist and commentator; and Ban Ki-moon, former United Nations Secretary General.
Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke about the importance of trust to University of Delaware students on Oct. 8, 2020. Buttigieg is President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Transportation.
“There was an expressed interest in making sure we had a diversity of opinions even 20 years ago when I attended,” Mikus said. “Those experiences of diversity and inclusion and promoting disparate voices… when I look back on it now, this was very much ahead of its time.”
Ryan Burke, who earned his doctorate from the Biden School in 2015, said he is “forever grateful for the University faculty who took a chance and admitted me.” He was not a traditional student, having come to higher education by way of the U.S. Marine Corps. While at UD — appealing to Burke for its close (but not too close) proximity to Washington, D.C. — he came up with a new model for military disaster response that is still in use by the U.S. Department of Defense. Today, he serves as deputy department head for curriculum in the Department of Military and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, where he conducts national security research.
“At the Biden School, you develop the tools that lead to change,” he said. “So to future students, if you are passionate about something, if you are interested in becoming a policy visionary crafting creative, informed solutions in a particular field that matters to you — if you want to become an agent for change — then this is exactly what you should pursue.”
Below, some past and current Blue Hens discuss their own public policy paths — and how the Biden School has prepared them to tackle every change-making dream.
Matt Garlipp earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations and public policy at UD, then earned a master’s degree at American University in Washington. He is an analyst at the Department of Homeland Security, focused on organizational performance and strategy. He was a finalist for the prestigious Presidential Management Fellows Program, where he worked on open government data initiatives at the Department of the Treasury.
Q: What distinguishes UD’s program in public policy?
Garlipp: The close-knit community feeling among students and faculty at IPA was very unique. I had great support and guidance, in addition to an exceptional number of experiential learning opportunities, including a paid undergrad research position. A highlight of my IPA experience — and college experience, in general — was my participation in the first Washington, D.C. Winter Session program. I lived in the heart of the nation’s capital with other UD students and learned about the ins and outs of government. When we weren’t in class, we were gaining valuable professional experience at our internships, or discussing politics over ice cream with Sen. Tom Carper and former Congressman [and now Gov.] John Carney. These experiences were invaluable to my academic and professional growth, and ones I look back on fondly.
Q: What’s something you learned from your time at Delaware that you still use today?
Garlipp: I built a strong foundation of critical thinking skills, as you’d hope to develop in any college program. But more specifically, the many memo-style assignments I had in my public policy courses have proved to be very valuable in my career. Writing in a structured, concise manner that effectively conveys a message is invaluable in the workplace.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in public service?
Garlipp: The three things I’d tell someone interested in a career in public service are:
1) Get plenty of internship experience. My suggestion would be to look into Pathways Program internships with the federal government. Not only does this help you figure out what you’re passionate about, but it adds great experience to your resume.
2) Do not be discouraged by ideas of salary. Public service motivation tends to drive public servants more than money, but government jobs can offer good pay, great benefits (including the nearly extinct pension) and stability.
3) Do not overthink your major, especially in undergrad. The government has a need for a diverse array of skill sets; in fact, a colleague of mine at Treasury was a music theory major. Key traits like problem-solving and communication skills along with relevant experience are often prioritized over degree type alone.
Jennifer Daniels is a doctoral candidate in the Biden School of Public Policy and Administration and an Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management Equity and Inclusion Fellow
Q: What has been the highlight of your time at UD?
Daniels: The opportunity to connect with so many Blue Hen community members. As a past staff member of the University, and current student, I’ve come across so many inspiring individuals and have had the opportunity to work with some really talented professionals and students.
Q: What is the biggest thing you’ve learned from your public policy education?
Daniels: That advocacy for disenfranchised or marginalized people absolutely has a place in macro-level practice.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in a career in public service?
Daniels: You must remember that public service work can be really challenging, tiring and sometimes a thankless job. However, my sentiment is that even if you only positively impact one person’s life, your efforts and work are worthwhile.
Wei-Ming Chen, who is from Taiwan and has a doctoral degree in energy and environmental policy, conducts public policy research at the Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research at UD. She also teaches environmental economics and energy analysis at Villanova University.
Q: What do you think distinguishes UD’s program in public policy?
Chen: UD provides an open and comfortable atmosphere for students to share their experiences and viewpoints. UD gave me a chance to understand other nations’ energy challenges and strategies from my colleagues’ first-hand experiences worldwide.
Chen: Keep an open mind and accept that there is no single correct answer for a real-world problem. Public policy is a fascinating subject because it deals with human beings. Something that works in one society may not work in another. Growing up in Eastern Asia, I was used to having one correct answer for every examination question. My learning experience in Delaware opened my eyes and my mind, helping me understand that we can explore the world and reach the goal in various ways. This philosophy applies to my work as well as my life.
Chen: Passion and persistence. When you start to work, you may find many important issues worth your attention. However, public resources are limited, as is your time. Also, political will significantly influences the priority of policy implementation. Please don’t be discouraged if the current political situation does not align with your values. Keep investing your energy in what you love and value. And make sure you are well prepared when an opportunity knocks on your door.
Eric Johnson, who earned his doctorate in urban affairs and public policy from UD, is the chief of economic development and neighborhood services for the city of Dallas. Johnson has oversight of housing, urban planning and design, historic preservation and economic development. He and his team will also be leading the city's economic resurgence after the coronavirus pandemic.
Q: What distinguishes UD’s program in public policy?
Johnson: My experience at UD was off the charts — it’s the best way I can describe it. The focus is not just on public policy, but teaching you to think critically. When I walked out the doors, I felt I was ready to go in terms of dealing with any subject matter in public policy.
Q: What is something from your time at UD that you still use today?
Johnson: The instructors — who were all-star professors — taught us… how can I say this? When you come to the table with a solution to a problem or you are challenging an existing solution, you better be able to back it up. What is the rationale behind what you’re bringing to the table? It is not good enough to say: ‘This is how I feel about this.’ What is the basis for your thinking? One of the ways the University empowers you to defend your thinking is by balancing academics with real-life experience. Other schools rely so heavily on theory, it can be difficult to make those connections after graduation. But with a degree from UD, I feel like I can hold my own with anyone at any time.
Johnson: For incoming students, know you are going to have a great experience and you are going to leave with a degree that will help you pivot in multiple arenas — the private, public and nonprofit sectors. For students who have graduated, appreciate how valuable that degree is. A UD Ph.D.? It’s becoming the gold standard in public policy.
Joe Biden and Dan Rich, the University Professor of Public Policy at UD, attended the 2009 Wind Energy Conference at UD.