Fels Institute student Madeline O’Brien credits her mother, who ran for political office in their hometown when Madeline was still in middle school, with inspiring her initial interests in politics and public policy. Those interests profoundly shaped her college search, leading her to George Washington University, where she majored in Political Science while also pursuing new academic paths through minors in journalism and public health. “One thing that I really liked about political science is that it connects seamlessly to other disciplines,” Madeline explained. “It was easy to draw the connections to how the media effects political decision making, or how health policies impact public health overall.” Political science became for her the center of an ever-widening intellectual universe.
Madeline found an equally enriching education outside the classroom, by doing internships in different offices across DC throughout her undergraduate years. Indeed, that was part of the allure of going to GW in the first place: “taking advantage of the opportunities to see government work up close.” She volunteered extensively on the 2012 Obama presidential campaign and then in the spring of her sophomore year, interned on the Hill in the office of Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ). There, she gained experience interacting with constituents over email and phone, while also getting to attend and take notes on Senate briefings, to assist the work of the legislative staff. The campaign and constituent relations work was particularly helpful in preparing her for a subsequent internship with the Democratic National Committee, where she helped compose newsletters and conducted outreach to members, as well as helped organize the 2013 DNC Winter Meeting.
In the summer before her senior year, Madeline was able to bring together her interest in politics, policy, communications, and public health through an internship with AARP, working on their FraudWatch initiative, which helps seniors identify and avoid online and phone scams. Madeline recalls, “One thing that I loved about AARP is that they are an organization that stands up and represents everyday people.” That feeling of satisfaction really stuck with her—so much so that upon graduating from GW, Madeline returned to AARP full-time, this time at their Public Policy Institute, conducting policy research and analysis for an advocacy campaign focused on nursing care. “It was a great opportunity to do something new and explore the policy and grant-management parts of the organization that I hadn’t seen previously,” she says.
Even while delving more deeply into policy work through AARP, Madeline remained committed to political organizing—she volunteered for the 2016 Clinton campaign—and continues to find different joys in political and policy engagement. As she puts it: “Political work, in my opinion, is much more focused on people. You’re excited and passionate about a candidate and the ideas that they have, and you’re working to spread that to other people and hopefully get them motivated to vote for your candidate as well. It’s really exciting, especially on election night, but it can also be a roller coaster. Policy, on the other hand, is the more methodical work of figuring out what the problems are and developing the best solutions to fix them.” It speaks more to the scholarly side of her personality. “I was really surprised at how much quantitative analysis goes into policy creation and evaluation,” she says.
Ultimately, Madeline aspires to work in government relations, “because it has elements of both politics and policy: you’re working with an organization that builds the policy, but get to work with different people in the political system to carry those ideas over into law.” To help get herself there, she wanted to do a graduate program in public policy, but after so many years inside DC, decided that she needed to get a fresh perspective, away from Washington. “I was immediately drawn to Fels,” she states, “because the two year program emphasized practical education and built internships into every semester,” which she had found so exciting and valuable during her undergraduate years. “I also loved that Fels had a small cohort, close-knit staff, and an emphasis on state and local issues that I had never gotten the chance to explore while in DC.” The fact that Philadelphia isn’t too far from Washington was a selling point too. She could get outside the “DC bubble” but still go back easily to see friends and interview for summer jobs.
Indeed, Madeline is back interning in Washington this summer. In a way, she has come full-circle, working on the Hill again, where she first interned during college. But she is now leveraging the wealth of her past experiences while working in the Pensions Office at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Although being on the Hill is familiar, she is gaining a new level of knowledge this time around. “On the policy side, I’ve learned a lot about pensions structure and how decisions made in the short term, even with good intentions, can have complicated long term consequences that impact people’s financial security. I’ve also learned a lot about how the gig economy has upended traditional health insurance and savings programs, and the challenges of protecting workers as those fields expand,” she explains. “On a macro level, I’ve also been reacquainted with the reality of how policy gets made. The process is slow and often political, and there are so many constituents and outside groups depending on results that are beyond any one person’s control. That being said, it’s awesome to see how different areas of the government come together to tackle issues”—even in today’s divisive political climate. It’s a feeling that strengthens her hope for the future and only enlivens her commitment to continue doing good work through government.