Alumni in Action

Public Service Spotlight

Michelle Wong

MPA-PNP - 2011

Analyst U.S. Government Accountability Office

Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?

I’m currently an Analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the independent, nonpartisan agency that advises Congress and executive agencies about ways to improve government processes and effectiveness. We audit federal programs, investigate allegations of improper activities, conduct policy analyses, or analyze budget trends to investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. I am now in GAO’s two-year Professional Development Program (PDP), which involves analyst training and project rotations across policy teams within the agency. So far I have reviewed USDA’s farm labor housing program, K-12 physical education and school sports programs, and Department of Energy budget trends. Once I finish the PDP, I will get placed permanently on one of GAO’s thirteen policy teams. One of the best aspects of my agency is that we have field offices, so I get to work in San Francisco, CA!

Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?

I wore a few hats before attending Wagner. My interest in policy began when I was a Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Fellow during my junior year of college. After I graduated from Cornell University, I spent some time working at a community-based arts organization in my hometown of Philadelphia. I then worked at the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, connecting communities to federal resources. After my time in DC, I shifted gears and analyzed enrollment and retention data at a university in Philadelphia. Although I crunched a lot of numbers during my typical work day, the most rewarding aspect of my job was reaching out to underrepresented communities and families sending their first kids to college. I decided I wanted to assist these communities on a policy level, which I knew would require some new skills.

What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?

The people, academics, and location influenced my decision to study at Wagner. Although I planned to attend policy school ever since my PPIA Fellowship, I waited four years after college before I applied. I’m glad I took more time to work and figure out what kind of career I wanted. Not only did additional work experience help me write more focused application essays, but it also helped me narrow down my school options. Visiting Wagner really helped me with my decision-making because it allowed me to get a sense of the Wagner community, meet professors, and hear from current students and alumni. When it came down to the final decision, I asked myself what I wanted to gain in terms of skills, non-classroom opportunities, living experience, and an alumni network. In the end, I realized I wanted a program that would help me develop finance and policy skills, and Wagner’s curriculum was one of the few that included finance classes. I also wanted a supportive community with accessible professors. Wagner professors introduced themselves by their first names and were very responsive to e-mails even though I was still a prospective student. In NYC, I would be at the forefront of some of the most pressing domestic and international policy issues. Finally, I liked the statement Wagner makes about being a “School of Public Service.” It recognizes the interconnectedness of nonprofit management, public finance, policy analysis, international affairs, and urban planning. This appealed to me because I wanted comprehensive training that did not take place in a silo. After weighing all of these factors, Wagner became my obvious choice for school.

In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?

The teamwork skills I honed at Wagner have been invaluable to me at GAO, where every product we issue is team-generated. Group projects and team assignments are the norm at Wagner. Although I had worked in teams before, I had never written papers or worked through analytical and quantitative exercises with a team. I would tell prospective and current students not to underestimate teamwork skills. My GAO colleagues and I provide constant feedback to one another and work collaboratively during every phase of our projects. Furthermore, since every GAO Analyst has a similar technical background, the ability to work well with others can really set you apart from the pack.

In my short time with GAO, I’ve also applied the finance, government budgeting, and policy analysis skills I gained at Wagner. Earlier this year, for example, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked my team to write a testimony about overall Department of Energy (DOE) budget trends, with a focus on key DOE programs. The Committee gave us two weeks to conduct our work and submit the testimony. I had never seen DOE’s budgets before, but there I was, sifting through pages and pages of information. This one project demanded strong finance, policy analysis, and writing skills from every analyst on our team. In addition, my team had to produce an accurate, high-quality product under a tight deadline. As overwhelming as this task could have been, I never felt more confident in my skills than when I completed this work.

Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?

I really want to thank David Schachter, Dan Smith, Shanna Rose, Jan Blustein, Judy Polyne, and Kathy O’Regan for their support over the years. In different ways, each of these individuals helped prepare me for my current job. First, I highly recommend David’s Composing Your Career class. The class helped me think strategically about career planning as opposed to just “job searching” and really helped me make the most of my Wagner resources and opportunities. With regards to technical skills, Dan really helped me connect with the material in the finance core class and motivated me to take a number of finance courses during my time at Wagner. The group lab exercises in Shanna’s Government Budgeting course not only prepared me for the analysis I conduct for my job, they made me well-versed in various Excel tools. Shanna and Jan’s emphasis on writing succinctly to the appropriate audience made my transition to GAO-style writing that much easier. Finally, the variety of assignments from Jan’s Estimating Impacts in Policy Research course ended up being the best writing samples for job applications. I talked about those assignments a lot during interviews because they served as tangible examples of how I could adjust policy research methods based on available data.

I appreciated my professors even more during my job search. Not only were they all willing to offer advice and chat with me about my career goals, a few offered to review my writing samples and help prepare me for interviews. I always felt as though I had advocates in my corner, which helped build my confidence as I pursued different jobs. I truly consider these professors my mentors.

Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?

One of the first Wagner events I attended involved a panel on the role education plays in combating childhood obesity. The panel consisted of academics, parent advocates, and the executive chef at NYC Department of Education. I attended due to my interest in education policy, but I soon realized the extent to which education policy intersects with other policy issues--in this case, food policy and public health. I realized then that I did not have to “choose” a policy area of interest; rather, I would be more satisfied with a career that allowed me to work across a number of issues as a generalist. I now consider my diverse policy interests an asset as I rotate policy teams at GAO.

Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?

I would advise current students to pay attention to the Wagner events calendar so they don’t miss out on great events and speakers. You never know who you will run into at these events. These events allow you to delve into a topic, beyond what you may cover in a class, as well as offer an opportunity to engage in a discussion with other attendees. As an alumna, I miss these sorts of events. I would also tell students to pursue leadership opportunities that make sense for their professional development. You have limited time as a student, so make sure you commit to responsibilities that would truly enhance your topical knowledge, professional network, or management experience.

How are you involved with the Wagner community as an alumna (i.e. attending events, mentoring students, maintaining connections with other alumni, recruiting at Wagner, etc.)?

As an alumna, I mentor current students, maintain connections with other alumni, and talk to prospective students. The Bay Area has a much smaller alumni network compared to NYC, but I’ve really enjoyed meeting other alumni at events. Even during my time at Wagner, I noticed more and more students with Bay Area connections, so our alumni network out here will likely grow over the years. I find it especially rewarding when current students reach out to me for career or course advice. It wasn’t too long ago when I contacted alumni through WAG-NET, so I am eager to pay it forward and provide any advice I can offer.

Prospective students have expressed interest in learning how alumni funded their living expenses and education during their time as a Wagner student. If you feel comfortable, would you please tell us how you made it work?

I held a few part-time jobs while I attended Wagner fulltime. During my first year, I earned a stipend as Wagner’s Student Affairs Project Assistant and served as an in-classroom tutor through NYU’s America Reads program. During my second year, I worked as a Teaching Colleague and tutor for two Wagner courses. I also received a Helbein Scholarship through NYU. The Teaching Colleague and tutor jobs provided me opportunities to earn funds as well as strengthen my knowledge of the subject matter. I had limited time as a full-time student, so I wanted to leverage opportunities to fund my education as well as support my professional development.