By Travis Trombley
On Thursday, Sept. 19, Albion’s Ford Institute hosted guest speaker and Albion alumna Sara Wycoff to discuss public policy and Michigan in general with Ford students. After graduating from Albion College in 2008, Wycoff used her liberal arts education to navigate the realm of Michigan public policy, culminating in her now serving as a Senior Strategic Policy Advisor for Governor Rick Snyder.
As a political science major at Albion who participated in the Prentis M. Brown Honors Program, the Law, Justice and Society concentration, and the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service, Wycoff was always disposed to both hard work and public policy. After graduating from Albion, Wycoff elected to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, partially due to the urgings of former congressman Joe Schwarz, whom Wycoff knew through the Ford Institute and her internship with the Kellog Company.
While at the University of Michigan, Wycoff says that while her peers tended to focus on isolated subjects, she approached policy more holistically.
“A lot of people focus in one area on their education – technology, public policy, or they’ll focus on economic policy or international policy relations, but I always joked that I focused on liberal arts policy and Michigan public policy,” Wycoff said.
Along with her graduate studies, Wycoff also worked with the Senate Fiscal Agency, a non-partisan budget analysis division of the Michigan legislature, where she developed quantitative skills and later landed a job writing issue papers for the legislature about what the fiscal analyses of the legislation they were proposing might have on the state. She later worked on a research team at Michigan State University studying local government bankruptcy and financial stress.
When she was finishing up her research grant, Wycoff says she considered leaving Michigan, but she was persuaded otherwise.
“I said, ‘Maybe I’ll leave Michigan – I don’t know, I like warm climates,’” Wycoff said. “And, uh, all my graduate school professors kind of persuaded me from leaving, because I think, just like being in Albion, there was a lot of need [in Michigan], and if you have the ability to help you should, and you should go where there’s a lot of need. And I thought that I could help, so I stayed. So I went to work for the government, spent a little bit of time on Military and Veteran’s Affairs, then came over into strategic policy offices a couple months later, and I’ve been here ever since.”
What follows is a more direct Q and A with Ms. Wycoff:
So what is it like working as a Strategic Policy Advisor?
Well, imagine that it’s finals week, but every week! No, it’s really wonderful. It’s an excellent opportunity. But I will say that the governor’s pretty serious about making sure that every day counts. There are, again, significant challenges that the state faced when we came into office, and we have a very talented team of individuals that are pretty committed to addressing some of those challenges, and I think that we’ve addressed a lot of them thus far, but we’re never really satisfied and we’re sure that there’s a lot of work left to do. So a pretty typical day starts quite early and ends quite late. We’re fortunate to work very closely with the legislature and we work very closely with businesses and non-profits. Again, kind of drawing on that Albion background, I’ve been very fortunate because I’m able to pull from many different public policy areas including, you know, housing and public safety and environment and healthcare—I get to do a little bit of everything, so it’s never boring, it’s always exciting, and certainly it’s meaningful because you’re helping people and helping a state that you love.
If I may jump back a bit, what initially attracted you to the Ford Institute at Albion College?
Well, I had a real strong interest in public service and public policy. I think there are some people who are pretty naturally drawn to that. I have two public service parents. My mom is a school teacher and my dad is a public attorney, so it could be that I grew up around that. And then coming to Albion and seeing, as a lot of the students there know, there’s a lot of challenges that the city faces. I think Bill Rose actually taught our introduction to public service for the Ford Institute at the time, and he really challenged the students to become a part of the community and to look at some of the challenges that it was facing. I think that anytime you can contextualize learning like that you’re going to learn a lot better, and, basically, you’re going to have an impact on the community around you, and that’s something that I really wanted to be a part of.
And what about the Ford Institute, specifically, prepared you for what you’re doing now?
I mean, I want to say it’s not just the Ford Institute, but I think the Ford Institute prepared me to take some ownership of the community that I live in, whether it’s Lansing that I live in now or if it’s the broader community of the state of Michigan. I think a lot of people can look at a problem and turn a blind eye to it, and not recognize that it affects them or affects their family or that there’s a business that they own or work at, and I think that the Ford Institute instilled a real sense of public service in me and my colleagues – and hopefully the students that are still going to that program today. And actually, the other real critical piece of that that Albion instilled in me—and I think is instilling in people still today—would be the ability to critically think and to adapt to a lot of situations. Now, when I started working on veteran’s issues for the governor, I had no background in veteran’s issues, but the difference between me and maybe somebody else is that I said, ‘okay, I can figure that out. I know how to think, I know how to research, I know how to write—certainly, at the end of the day, I can come up with the answer for you.’ There are very few schools, I think, producing people that can do that right now.
The really neat thing about public policy is that it’s almost inherently a liberal arts exercise. I get to touch a little bit of everything. And so, I’m really interested to hear what you guys think, to be honest. I try to talk to as many people as I can. I talk to who bags my groceries, just to find out what he thinks is going on in the state of Michigan. And I think that young people particularly have an interesting vantage point. Not that any of you are that much younger than me—at least, I like to tell myself that—but at the end of the day, the Michigan we’re building now is for the future generation—it’s not for the people that are here today. So, hopefully you’re happy with the Michigan we’re building, and if not, it’s really good to find out about it.
Photo by Travis Trombley
In order to appropriately condense the conversation, some chunks of dialogue have been re-ordered, but The Pleiad assures readers that Wycoff’s quotes are accurate and that nothing has been taken out of context.