Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Student Spotlight: Catherine Tonsberg Syfert MPA ’19

Hometown: North Attleboro, MA

Policy interests: Labor issues, women’s rights, poverty alleviation

What is your professional background and why did you decide to pursue your Master of Public Affairs at Brown?

Previously I worked as a political organizer for a Congressional campaign and labor unions. Most recently I was a policy associate for the ACLU of Rhode Island, where I drafted policy memos, spoke to reporters, and testified in front of state legislative committees. I decided to pursue an MPA degree at Brown because as a nontraditional student, the one-year program gives me the opportunity to get back into the workforce quickly, equipped for the next levels.

You represent the MPA on the Graduate School Council -- why did you get involved in the GSC?

I’m hopeful that I will have a hand in improving the graduate school experience for parent-students at Brown. My daughter, Charlotte, recently turned one. Even with help from my partner and family, balancing an intensive academic program and new parenthood is a struggle. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to drive around the block to get her to nap, bringing along a stack of reading for when she’s finally out! It’s important to me to ensure I’m building an easier road behind me for other parents to follow this path.

Looking back, what hard skills did you take away from intensive summer session?

The summer session was an excellent starting point. The quantitative analysis skills I took from statistics were especially useful for understanding the reality of policy making. These skills have taught me ways to determine what a “good” policy is. Some things that look good on the surface may have unintended consequences, or not be the best option to solve a problem.

You participated in the Global Policy Experience in South Africa. What part of the GPE resonated with you the most?   

We attended a crucial hearing on “state capture,” a type of political corruption in which private interests are heavily influencing state decisions. The hearing included a key witness, and was part of an ongoing inquiry following accusations against former President Zuma. We discussed this issue in many contexts — with staffers of the commission carrying out the inquiry, politicians, experts, and even Uber drivers. Learning from individuals who are dealing with the effects of this policy challenge demonstrated not just the complexity of the problem, but also how South Africans are addressing it, from activism and protest to formal inquiry. This kind of experiential learning goes far beyond what I could understand by reading a book.

What are you interested in doing with your MPA?

Of particular interest to me is the implementation stage of the policy process, and analyzing how policies thrive or fail. Courses like GIS, policy analysis, and public budgeting have given me insight into the areas where policy implementation can falter. While I'm still exploring what exactly the future will look like for me, I know I will be taking these skills and applying them toward fostering transformative social policies that work.