Today, we’re happy to share part two of our roundtable conversation with five History, Philosophy, and Political Science graduates of Bethel who work in state or local government.
In your job do you ever feel like you draw on what you learned in your studies at Bethel?
Chelsey Olson ’12 (Political Science/International Relations — Legislative and Health Policy Manager, Minnesota Council of Health Plans): My work history has consistently leaned heavily on both research and writing, skills which were honed during my time at Bethel. For example, in one of my classes with Dr. Chris Moore, we were required to write a memo and executive summary on topics, rather than traditional papers. I do not naturally lean toward writing succinctly, so those exercises were particularly helpful for me to learn how to refine my writing to be able to communicate the necessary pieces of information in a concise format. During my time at the Legislature, I wrote countless memos for busy members who did not have time to read longer papers. It was incredibly helpful to have practiced those skills prior to entering the workforce.
Stephen Chang ’15 (Political Science — Communications Director, Texas General Land Office): In my role now, I’m called to think strategically about our agency’s goals and objectives and how to best achieve those goals while working with those who might not necessarily share our viewpoint on things should be done. Classes like Intro to International Relations and American Public Policy taught me how to think about how administrators and practitioners in our field might approach an issue from various angles and also to consider why others might want to solve that issue in a different manner than us. Put simply, I think the ability to approach issues and understand those whom you may not agree with and to come to a successful outcome is something that Bethel equipped me to do.
Chelsey: More directly… Dr. Stacey Hunter Hecht once assigned our class a book on the ACA and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). While I never imagined I would end up working in health policy, I recall when I was assigned to the Health and Human Services Finance Committee at the House, I was able to start with a familiarity with health program terminology and a basic understanding of the intersection of Medicaid and other health insurance programs because of the readings assigned in class by Dr. Hecht.
Bjorn Olson ’13 (History/Social Studies Education — Minnesota state legislator, R-Blue Earth): I have found that in life, it is not so much what you learned, but the experiences you had while learning that matter the most. I am the person that I am based on how I was raised. Bethel was, and remains, a place that reinforced the morals and values that I continue to draw upon in my position as a state representative.
Last year our political science professors devoted an episode of their podcast, Election Shock Therapy, to asking if local government was starting to reflect the partisan splits and ideological debates we normally associate with politics at the national level. Do you feel like your work is increasingly shaped by such forces, or does it tend to be non- or bipartisan?
Chris LaTondresse ’05 (Philosophy/Political Science — Hennepin County Commissioner): Of course local government isn’t immune from these forces, but trust in local government remains high despite them. A recent national poll showed that 66% of Americans still trust local government to solve problems, compared with 57% for state government and an abysmal 39% for the federal government.
Why? Local government is still where things get done. In the case of Hennepin County it’s literally where the rubber meets the road. (We own and maintain 2,200 lane miles.) Through the painful events of the past year our local governments have been stepping up to address the emergency public health and economic impacts of COVID-19, meeting tangible needs in practical ways that transcend partisan politics — where many of our colleagues at other levels of government find still themselves embroiled in intractable partisan fights. I think that’s why, more than ever before, people are looking to non-partisan local government, not only when times are tough, but to model the kind of leadership we all deserve from government, period.
Chelsey: While at the House, my work was inherently partisan — I worked for the Republican caucus. However, there were always areas in which we could work in a bipartisan manner, and it was very rare that partisan squabbling crossed over to where I could not have friendly conversations with members and staff across the aisle.
Bjorn: My position as a state representative is absolutely shaped by partisan forces. But with that being said, partisan beliefs are very similar to our core values. When I was a small town mayor, I was not identified on the ballot as having a specific political affiliation. With that being said, I still walked into the room with the exact same core values and beliefs that I carry today. I looked at the issues the same way that I do now; the only difference is that we didn’t deal with some of the ultra-partisan issues on a local level.
Chelsey: I do think the shift to work from home has served to make things more political at the MN Capitol. Pre-COVID, members were able to see each other in person and attend offsite happy hours and events. These settings allowed members, and staff, to get to know each other on a personal level — learn about each other’s interests and families — nonpolitical things. When you are able to get to know those on the other side of the aisle beyond their voting records and political ideologies, it is easier to work together on areas of common interest. I think the shift to work from home has hurt our ability to get to know people beyond the political posturing on the floor and in committee, which makes it easy to fall into an “us vs them” mentality and much more difficult to form friendships with those across the aisle. I think this has contributed to things becoming more politically polarized on a state level. I am hopeful that when Legislative operations return to “normal,” some of the hyper-politicization will subside. I don’t expect floor sessions or committee hearings to look different, but I do hope more of the behind-the-scenes friendships and collaborations will return
Austin Bleess ’07 (Political Science — City Manager, Jersey Village, Texas): We have been somewhat isolated from all of the major issues of COVID. All of our public health is done by the county. But the pandemic has opened up great opportunities for us as well. In February of 2020 I saw the shutdowns that were occurring, so I worked with my staff to get ready for remote work, which we did for about two months. Now we have a hybrid setup, and people can work from anywhere. It’s benefited the quality of life for a lot of our employees and is a great asset. Granted, not everyone can work remotely. Police, Fire, Public Works: all need to be in person. But it has been great to have change in a lot of positions.
Chelsey: In my new role at the Council, my work is bipartisan in nature. We work with members on both sides of the aisle and support policies that cut both ways. I will say that the Democrat members I worked with at the House are still very friendly towards me and do not seem to hold my previous political role against me.
Finally, do you have any advice for our students who might be interested in working in government or politics?
Bjorn: Make sure you are interested in this area for the right reason. It is called public service. I have realized that there are two different types of legislators: those who are in it for their constituents, and those who are in it for themselves. We need people who are in this for the good of those they represent; we have far too many who are solely in it for themselves.
Austin: I’m certainly biased, but local government is the best. (But I’m in good company. Thomas Jefferson said, “The government closest to the people serves the people best.”) Having done an internship in the federal level and previously worked at the state level, I can say I have the most impact on people’s lives on the city level. The lives that I impact are not just some random people I would likely never meet. They are my neighbors, the people I go to church with, the people I meet at the park with my kids, and the people I see at the grocery store or coffee shop. Plus you can do just about anything in local government. And when you work for a small city, you get to dabble in everything!
Chelsey: I would strongly recommend interning at the state legislature and going to the Bethel Day at the Capitol events. During my time at Bethel, I interned with two different senators, which provided a whole new perspective on the inner workings of the legislative process that you simply cannot learn through a textbook. If students have any interest in political campaigns, I would recommend they reach out to a local candidate this election season — volunteer to walk in parades, stuff envelopes, or door knock… local candidates always need help. Volunteering is a great way to network and learn about what it actually takes to run a campaign. It also doesn’t hurt that interning and volunteering look great on resumes.
Austin: There are always cities that are looking for interns. Check them out and give them a try. Look at joining some professional organizations, such as the International City Management Association (ICMA) or its state affiliates. (Here’s the link to Minnesota’s.) Student membership into these types of groups is usually very cheap, if not free. The networking and real-life knowledge you can gain are priceless.
Stephen: “No question is too small, or too ‘dumb’ or ‘silly’ to ask. If you don’t ask, you won’t know—and you don’t know what you don’t know.” That’s what the late Stacey Hunter Hecht would tell me in her office when I would come in and pick her brain. So I would tell current students: don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know the answer, or if you’re curious. I promise you that someone else has had that same question, and by putting yourself out there and asking, you’ll learn something from someone who might be able to answer it that you didn’t know before.
Chelsey: I would also encourage students to set up informational interviews with those working in areas that might be of interest to them. While it may seem a bit awkward to request, I have found people are usually very willing to meet – we all remember what it was like to be a college student.
Stephen: Also, seek out a mentor. A lot of young professionals think they can do it on their own — I certainly thought so when I graduated. Others who are in the same profession as you are there to be a resource — if you ask. You’d be surprised how many folks you cross paths with are happy to grab a coffee or a meal to chat with you so long as you initiate. One of my closest mentors and friends I’ve made down here in Texas is someone who is nearly a decade older than myself, and we make it a regular thing to get together and talk about just about anything, from work and life to faith and sports, and everything in between. Don’t go it alone. And remember to pay it forward!
Chris: There’s a lot of pressure on college students to find clarity around their career trajectory, often at the expense of vocational discernment. “What’s your five year plan,” they’re asked, “and what are the steps you’re going to take to get there?” This really boils down to a career question. I honestly had no idea how to even begin answering a question like this in my early twenties. I remember feeling rather insecure about it with graduation looming large.
So I charted a different course, one rooted in different kinds of questions that, frankly, a liberal arts education prepared me well for: What bigger questions are you most eager to gain greater clarity or insights about? What type of people do you most want to grow with?Which issues, deep down in your bones, do you really, truly care about? These are the questions that cut to the heart of vocation.
I spent the better part of my twenties seeking out opportunities that helped me live into these larger vocational questions, rather than pursuing the next obvious career move. It’s perhaps the road less traveled, but following these questions has made all the difference.