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Catching up with Mary Madsen, MS Public Policy ’21

By Liz Waldie


March 13, 2023

Mary Madsen, MS public policy ’21, started her master's program before Covid and graduated with the pandemic in full swing. “I think I spent at least half of the program at home, which was pretty wild,” she laughed.

Originally from Texas, the culture shock of moving to Philadelphia with her husband and child was difficult to begin with, but especially challenging when she realized that she would be stuck in the city with no prospect of returning home due to travel restrictions. But Madsen made the most of her time here. As someone interested in education policy, it was a great opportunity for her to learn about how city councils and school districts work in times of crisis.

“It ended up being a fascinating look at how people reacted to what was happening in the public schools and the prolonged closure, and then the ongoing upset between the school board, administration and parents about disease mitigation and plans for safety when the kids returned,” Madsen explained. “In Houston, we have a very different political structure at the city level than Philadelphia does, so it was interesting to see how the city council responded.”

Read on to learn more about Madsen’s passion for public policy and her time at Drexel.

Why did you go into public policy?

My bachelor's degree is in English literature and history. I was a high school teacher, and I started thinking about whether I wanted to continue teaching. It kind of led me to the conclusion that I wanted to go back to school. I knew that I did not want to get another degree in English literature or history—or even education—because I wanted to transition out of K-12 education. I originally looked at public policy, primarily interested in education policy, thinking that I would prefer to be in a more analytical, big-picture sort of position. I wanted to look at how we can shape the face of education going forward.


What was it about Drexel’s public policy program that drew you in?

There were a couple of different reasons. One was the fact that it was an MS program and not an MA program. Part of why I wanted to go back to school and shift focus, instead of just settling into a job, is that I wanted to hone my quantitative skills. I knew that Drexel’s program was going to allow me to do that. I also liked that the program was centered around an original research thesis, as opposed to comprehensive exams or something like that. I didn't have original research or research experience, so that was a big benefit for me. The public policy program was also not housed within a policy department, like a lot of policy programs tend to be—it was housed within departments like history and politics. It was nice to have more of a disciplinary grounding in my opinion.


What was the focus of your research thesis?

As I got further through my coursework, and through experience with different classes and professors, I learned that I wanted to look deeper. Having been a teacher, I knew that education policy is typically siloed, and that's not how schools and students function. Education doesn't exist in a vacuum, so I tried to find programming or policy to study that enabled a wider view of education policy and spending. I heard about a program in Tacoma, Washington, where the local public housing authority had partnered with the public school district to create a new housing program that provided families with housing vouchers, case management and educational and job training opportunities, with the goal of stabilizing the student population in a school that had high turnover. It was part of a larger federal program. I thought this was interesting—finding balances between flexibility and rigidity in programs that are designed, administered and implemented at multiple different levels. And then how different parts of the public sector can overlap and work toward being more collaborative.


What are you working on now?

I’m in the political science PhD program at City University of New York (CUNY), and I started teaching at Hunter College. I’ve been working on a project that deals with public housing. New York’s public housing authority is much bigger, as opposed to Tacoma. They're organized differently, as well. The project I’m working on deals with political engagement and local, public processes that relate to how the city looks, works and functions. I'm looking specifically at residents who are involved with this program that the housing authority is using to try to get an influx of private funding to fix the billions of dollars of problems they are having with traditional public housing campuses. Some of the public housing campuses will be public-private partnerships essentially, instead of fully public. So I'm looking at how residents are trying to work within that or are able to resist working within that.


What is most memorable from your time at Drexel and in Philadelphia?

I have a child who, at the time, was enrolled in Philly’s public school district, so that was a helpful point of engagement for me. But my professors were also really good at forwarding potential opportunities—jobs, internships, programs, workshops—so it was through the department that I learned that the city council was looking for research assistants to help figure out what people wanted to see in terms of how Covid funding should be dispersed in the city. I was able to work with a couple of offices and members of city council and sat in on town hall-style meetings to see what was happening throughout the city. I saw the relationships between the council, the offices of the council members and their constituents and how that differed across districts.


What advice would you give to students who want to pursue a similar path?

I think my biggest piece of advice is to define your objectives or your big picture goal. It doesn't have to be super specific, and it doesn't have to be long-term either. It can be as simple as, “What do I want to accomplish in the next couple of years?” And then make sure that the things you're saying yes to get you closer to where you want to be. In general—and especially as someone who went back to school in their 30s—there are a lot of different opportunities that you get the chance to consider. And a lot of them may be fun or helpful in certain ways, but sometimes they detract from that main goal. You really have to prioritize.