Learning by Doing

Students in the Master of Public Policy Program show how internships provide a valuable complement to classroom learning and a beneficial bridge to professional work.

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Sonia Manrique-Stromberg (left) and Sepi Aghdaee at Oakland City Hall. Photo by Dana Davis.
By Whitney Phaneuf, MFA ’07

Sepi Aghdaee had never run a press conference when Oakland City Councilmember and Mayor-elect Libby Schaaf asked her to do so one day last September. But by the end of the week, she’d successfully pulled together reporters and officials to address the topic of chronic absenteeism in Oakland schools. As an intern in Schaaf’s office, such challenges are part of the daily routine for Aghdaee, who is pursuing a joint master’s degree in public policy and business administration (MPP/MBA) at Mills.

While Aghdaee’s “intern” title is accurate, her duties are a far cry from the low-level tasks typically associated with such positions. Prior to the internship, Aghdaee had limited exposure to the development of policy within a government office but, since starting her internship last spring, she has written a new piece of legislation that was on the November ballot. As she continues in Schaaf’s office this fall, she is assisting with items that come to the city’s Community and Economic Development Committee.

Along with Sonia Manrique-Stromberg, a 2015 master of public policy candidate, and Lillian Cuny ’11, MPP ’12, Aghdaee found that her internship with Schaaf moved her from writing policy papers to shaping actual public policy, and gained her advantages in both the classroom and job hunt.

No ordinary internship

Being tasked with organizing a press conference was not the first time Aghdaee had plunged into uncharted waters, with a little push from Schaaf. That day she became knowledgeable about chronic absenteeism in Oakland elementary schools, a problem Schaaf countered with an initiative to reward classes that have the best attendance with a pizza party three times a year.

“What’s interesting about Libby’s office is that, from the get-go, it was expected that I would do it,” Aghdaee recalls. “Her motto is ‘You are capable and that’s why you are here.’ It pushes you to be accountable and get the job done.”

Part of that accountability includes following through on projects even after the semester-long internship is technically over. Aghdaee will continue to coordinate the Great Attendance Pizza Challenge with principals of the four participating elementary schools until the end of the school year.

A high level of accountability and responsibility was also true for Aghdaee’s work on Measure DD, which passed easily in the election on November 4. The measure reforms the process by which the city draws its district boundaries every 10 years, based on US census data, to ensure that each district has roughly the same amount of people represented in local elections, including city council and school board seats. Historically, the redistricting has been determined by politicians.

“The lawmakers who run for the seats draw their own lines, and Council members Schaaf and Dan Kalb said this is a conflict of interest,” says Aghdaee, who began to work on the measure last February. “It’s very important that districts are fair and don’t break up communities.”

As the first and primary project of her spring internship, Aghdaee had to determine how to bring fairness and transparency to the redistricting process and make it “reflective of the geographic, racial, ethnic, and economic diversity” in Oakland. And, as she learned during her interview for the position, she would be responsible for gathering all public input, researching similar legislation, and ultimately drafting the proposed measure.

“Libby’s chief of staff, Shereda Nosakhare, told me that I would figure it out,” Aghdaee recalls.

Aghdaee started by identifying and meeting with local individuals and organizations to gather expert input, and examined other approaches to solving the problem from across the country. In between classes at Mills, Aghdaee spent her days at City Hall and her nights at home drafting the measure. Her work continued through the summer as Schaaf, Kalb, and the city attorney reviewed and revised the legislation.

They settled on a plan closely modeled after the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which determines the district maps for congressional, state assembly, state senate, and Board of Equalization districts, and the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission in Austin, Texas, which voters passed in 2012.

Measure DD will go into effect following the 2020 census, at which time any Oakland resident without political conflicts of interest can apply to serve on the 13-person Independent Redistricting Commission. Schaaf, whose district encompasses the middle slice of the city and runs just north of Mills College, says there was some debate about who should screen applicants and choose members of the commission, and that Aghdaee’s influence affected the legislation in an unexpected way.

“As part of the redistricting process, a screening panel is formed to select a pool of the best qualified residents,” Schaaf explains. “Initial suggestions included a judge and a law student, but they changed law student to graduate student because they thought Sepi was so impressive. They had her in mind as the type of person they would want to make decisions.”

Confidence in the classroom

Schaaf, whose aunt went to Mills, has been a guest speaker in several public policy classes, addressing how to run a political campaign as a mother with young children and other issues facing women in government office. Visiting professor Anne Moses suggested Schaaf take on department students as interns, and so far she’s had three from Mills.

“Mills has sent me the most capable, competent, dedicated, passionate workers that I ever could have dreamed of,” says Schaaf.

Schaaf held multiple internships as an undergraduate and as a law student, and those experiences inform how she manages students working in her own office today. While the internship is unpaid, she wants students to have something to show to prospective employers at the end of it.

“Internships should not only be about grunt work,” Schaaf says. “You want to empower interns not just to explore things, but to have ownership and to produce a real product to show at the end of their experience.”

Aghdaee admits that, at some points, it has been tough to balance working for Schaaf and being in school, but believes the practical experience has given her an academic advantage. “I’m currently taking one of the toughest classes in the program and was very happy with my grade on the first assignment,” Aghdaee says. “I’m a more confident writer as a result of putting together Measure DD, and the experience from my internship gave me insights into the coursework.”

Her Mills education has also served her well at Schaaf’s office. “Mills students know how to work in teams,” Aghdaee says. “It was great to see how that works in the real world.” Aghdaee adds that Schaaf sets that tone in her approach: “Libby embodies the Mills spirit in that she wants women to succeed. The way she collaborates with people is similar to what I love about Mills—it’s not competitive.”

For Manrique-Stromberg, who interned with Schaaf during the summer after her first year in the MPP program, her Mills training helped with duties like summarizing staff reports and talking to constituents and nonprofits. “I had already done a lot of writing and researching at Mills, and I felt much more prepared,” Manrique-Stromberg says.

Manrique-Stromberg researched topics such as Measure FF, the hotly debated—but ultimately successful—ballot measure which raises Oakland’s minimum wage to $12.25, and prepared briefings for Schaff and her staff. “It’s pretty overwhelming to take in all the information surrounding these issues and figure out your stance,” Manrique-Stromberg says. “But it’s also exhilarating. Libby and her staff wanted me to learn as much as possible. I felt instantly welcome and part of the team.”

Manrique-Stromberg also spent a lot of time at City Hall sitting in on council meetings. “It was perfect for me as a general introduction to local government,” Manrique-Stromberg says. “It’s been a real advantage in school and has helped me in my Local Policymaking, Planning, and Management class because now I have a first-hand sense of the advocacy process.”

The new interview

Lili Cuny, who was Schaaf’s first intern from Mills, says that she hadn’t imagined how powerful the internship experience could be. “I didn’t really understand the importance of doing internships while in school,” Cuny says. “I just kind of figured that school would give me access to different jobs and that people would be impressed with my academic experience.” Luckily, Cuny’s Mills professors were impressed enough to personally recommend her to Schaaf, who helped her transition from part-time, post-graduation jobs to a full-fledged career.

Cuny was known around Mills for her love of animals and her vegan baked goods, which she shared with her classmates on test days; Schaaf had been searching for an intern to work on a possible animal rights ordinance. “Lili could not have been more perfect,” Schaaf recalls. Schaaf had met with animal rights activists who were concerned about the treatment of performing circus, and other event-related, animals being brought into Oakland. With Cuny on board, they found there were no regulations on circuses or any other animal performing acts to take extra precautions.

“A circus would get the same special event permit as a traveling flower show, but there’s a lot more inherent danger for the animals,” Cuny says. “It’s an accident waiting to happen if you have no oversight. There could be property damage, people getting hurt, and we were also concerned with how the animals were being treated and trained, and what their quality of life was like.”

Cuny’s initial research included reading decades’ worth of US Department of Agriculture reports, and finding that some of these circus animals had been subjected to abuse many times throughout the years. “It was so sad, but what I tried to remember was that we were making a change,” Cuny recalls.

Cuny interviewed the animal rights group Schaaf had met with, the former director of Oakland Animal Services, and representatives from the East Bay SPCA, the Marin County SPCA, and the Oakland Zoo, among others—including the major circuses such as Ringling Bros. and UniverSoul.

“We didn’t want to spit in anyone’s eye, and we had to keep in mind that a lot of people like the circus. I can’t let my personal passion blind me to good policy,” Cuny says. “I really wanted to do a good job. It was absolutely my dream assignment, which was awesome, but totally scary.”

Cuny’s hard work paid off—long before she finished her project—when Schaaf’s policy analyst found out she was having twins and had to start her maternity leave ahead of schedule. Based on Cuny’s performance as an intern over the previous three months, Schaaf hired her to be her interim policy analyst, a paid position that lasted about a year.

In that time, Cuny successfully amended Oakland’s special event permit to include greater scrutiny of the treatment of animals and to give the city authority to do site inspections. The new ordinance, which Cuny wrote, required changing the city’s municipal code, and took about twenty revisions before it went to the city attorney and was voted on twice by the city council in late 2013.

“Because of Lili, animals that come to Oakland have much better care than they did before,” Schaaf says. “And I will bet that Oakland will adopt a full-on ban on the use of bull hooks based on the policy report she wrote to educate the council on this issue.”

Today, Cuny is applying her skills to national health care programs in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington DC. She was selected from among 15,000 applicants to serve as Presidential Management Fellow, a prestigious two-year program that allows recent graduates with advanced degrees to work with a government agency at a civil service rank—a first step towards becoming a permanent employee. Working for Schaaf didn’t just boost her resume, she says, it gave her the confidence to apply.

“Working with Libby for a year, tackling so many different issues, and feeling proud of what I was doing was a big benefit,” Cuny says.

As for Manrique-Stromberg, who plans to work in regional and state clean energy policy after she graduates in 2015, she’s certain that her internship experience in Schaaf’s office will help her in the job market. “It’s a testament to Mills. I don’t think every school encourages internships like we do here and the College has built a really strong connection with local government,” Manrique-Stromberg says. Though she doesn’t graduate until 2016, Aghdaee says she feels like she has a head start thanks to Mills and Schaaf: “It was very important that wherever I went to school had real-world contacts. Libby has been very generous in introducing me to people.”

Schaaf, who was voted in as Oakland’s new mayor in November’s election, is unequivocal about the benefits of partnering with the College. “Without a doubt,” she says, “as I continue in politics, my work will certainly include interns from Mills.”

Gaining an edge

Mills students in many academic disciplines are securing pivotal experience and post- graduation jobs thanks to internships. For computer science major Amelia Parmidge ’14, two summer internships at Google not only led to her current position as a software engineer at the tech giant, but also changed her entire academic direction.

Parmidge entered Mills as a biochemistry and molecular biology major, to which she added an engineering practicum. That’s how she met Ellen Spertus (at left), a professor of computer science at Mills and research scientist at Google who has spent decades working to bring more women into computing fields. Spertus encouraged Parmidge to apply for a Google internship during the summer between her sophomore and junior years. “Before I went to Mills, I didn’t have a background in CS,” Parmidge says. “But at Google, I had a chance to see what working at a software company was like, and it helped me become a programmer.” By her junior year, Parmidge changed her major and returned to intern at Google the following summer. she was hired upon graduation. “An internship is kind of like having a 12–14 week interview,” Parmidge says.

Parmidge’s experience reflects a national trend. According to an internships.com survey—which was conducted in December 2012 and polled students, recent graduates, and human resources professionals—graduates have a seven in 10 chance of being hired by a company they interned with. In 2012, 69 percent of companies with 100 or more employees offered full-time positions to previous interns. The survey also polled employers on the factors that most influenced hiring decisions, and two-thirds said they placed relevant work experience and interview performance above academic performance. Mills’ emphasis on internships, in tandem with academics, is keeping graduates competitive in a job market where a degree often isn’t enough.