How to be Wonky (or, The Roots of Bipartisanship)

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national_capitol_building_washington_dc.jpgBy Stuart Portman

In the midst and fervor of a new year, it’s important to reflect on our passions for the work we do. As a recent alum (May 2015), I can personally say that the most valuable skill set I gained from the health policy program is the ability to analyze a topic/claim critically, while still trying to understand it’s original intent. That, and I will never cease to make something wonky and policy-related. That never goes away when you have a MPH. 

When not reflecting on the lessons from GW, I spend my time working on healthcare policy in the U.S. Senate. As I learned firsthand, your expertise in the classroom will translate into skills, not necessarily content. This isn’t to say that my lessons with Sara Rosenbaum were unnecessary; to the contrary, she helped shape my academic interest in Medicaid and enabled me to better ask the real questions about Medicaid policy. Expecting to leave a Master’s level program with a complete understand of every Medicaid eligibility pathway would be silly; I’ve met people who have studied Medicaid for 30 years that are still unsure of all of the pathways. However, I know what and who to ask to get a more complete picture of the different ways a person could be eligible. And those interactions are incredibly rewarding.

My goal for graduates of the Health Policy program is to ensure that everyone is thoughtful. People have their opinions, and working in politics, I am acutely aware of how bias can influence our actions. However, you are being trained to be better than that. Regardless of your personal feelings, you should be able to have a genuine conversation about a policy without feeling like you’re betraying your convictions. That takes practice. The first time I met—professionally—with an anti-vaxxer, my public health mind blew up. I was pretty close to boiling at the inaccuracies that I heard. The second time, I was more restrained. I’m not saying you should agree; I’m simply saying that trying to understand why someone would be against a government mandate or a scientifically sound technology will make your own argument stronger. So rather than seething away as an angry, wonky, hot mess, you can stay professional and respond with intellect and grace. This is how bipartisanship often begins; people won’t often agree, but they will be willing to connect on a more personal level if you engage them at the onset of the conversation.

Why do I care about the graduates of Health Policy program? Apart from my deep love of GW SPH, it’s because we are all part of the same team. While we are in different graduation years, we all represent the program when we enter the professional world after we add “MPH” to the end of our names. While our strength is fortified by our relationships, it’s based on our ability to be accurate, precise, and competent. We may not always succeed, but those missed moments force us to confront our shortcomings, which in turn drives our desire to better understand a particular policy. So keep building your skill sets. Become familiar with a few policy areas that really motivate you. And stay wonky. 


Stuart Portman is a Healthcare Legislative Correspondent for Senator Orrin G. Hatch (R—UT). He graduated from the Milken Institute School of Public Health in May 2015. His major interests, apart from helping current students, include Medicaid, long-term care, disability policy, and health information technology. He also enjoys watching pandas play in the snow.


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