Why would a top-ranked student move from Washington, D.C. to Oregon for a Master of Public Policy? For Chris Buerger, it was the chance to get away from 'beltline' thinking, and experience the wonderful diversity of ideas and issues that a public administrator can impact.
"My first experience here was a forestry class where we traveled out to communities in eastern and central Oregon. I kept hearing the local people say, 'They make these rules out in New York or DC or someplace, and they just don't know what it's really like out here,'" he says. "At first I was a little put off. But then I started to think, 'Yeah, I could have been one of those people in DC — read the books, got my degree, but I'd be making policy with no idea of what it's like for the people affected by it.'"
Chris was the 2006-07 recipient of the Oregon Sports Lottery Graduate Fellowship. He is just completing a Master of Public Policy (MPP) with emphases in environmental, rural, and applied policy. This blend reflects the varied interests that Chris still holds at a point in his graduate studies when many students have become much more specialized. "This is a truly interdisciplinary degree," he says. "You have all these great opportunities to put yourself outside your comfort zone and see things from many different perspectives."
He came to the MPP program with the aim of studying environmental policy. But through a wide range of courses and community involvement, he realized he had an equally strong commitment to children's issues. Because of the structure of the MPP, which allows students to choose from courses in economics, political science, sociology, and agricultural and resource economics, Chris has created a program that will keep his options open.
"I'm interested in working on community development issues, whether it's issues surrounding toxic pollutants or issues in the local foster care system," he says. "I want to feel like I'm well equipped to listen and offer people whatever tools they need — a megaphone to make themselves heard or something more like a gear they can push to get things moving."
Chris enjoys the quantitative side of public policy, and says an insightful approach to statistics can make the difference between a policymaker and a bureaucrat. "The trick is to work in a careful and critical manner so you don't misrepresent the data," he says. "To be effective, we need to think beyond 'how can we get the data' and focus on 'why is this data appropriate or inappropriate to the question we're trying to answer.'"
This year, Chris held an internship with the Oregon Commission on Children and Families, and it's helped him adjust his own preconceptions about bureaucracies. "I really feel like a useful member of a team creating effective policy," he says. "You're actually there implementing the policy, taking the grants to the communities, helping them understand which programs are working well and which are not, and finding the solutions. It's very fulfilling work."
The next phase of his education take Chris back to the city — New York City, where he will begin a law degree at Columbia next fall. "The MPP has given me an excellent understanding of the process of making good public policy," he says. "I think adding a degree in law will give me a unique toolkit, and also the power to push things through the system. If you're really committed to using that in a productive way for people, I think you can do a lot of good."