McCourt Team Named Top Finalist at National Invitational Public Policy Challenge

A team of three McCourt students was named a top finalist at the National Invitational Public Policy Challenge, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, after advancing to the last round of the annual competition that calls on students to provide innovative solutions to pressing policy challenges in the communities that they study.

Students Kelsey Berkowitz (MPP ’18), Christian Conroy (MPP/MSFS ’19), Catherine Lyons (MPP ’18), and exchange student Daniel Willett, earned the distinction along with a $1,000 prize to help implement a pilot program at the Dorothy Height Public Library in Washington, D.C. The award follows extensive team’s preparation and numerous rounds of competition that began with them presenting their idea to a McCourt faculty committee.

The team’s proposal, “Leveraging Libraries,” detailed their plan to facilitate adult education and career development services, along with children's tutoring services, at a local Washington, D.C. library to directly benefit its community members.

The judges at the national challenge acknowledged the thoroughness of the proposal and provided feedback that the students will use in continuing to work with city officials to implement the project in an effort to create equal opportunities for learning and development for all individuals within the community.

“We've spent months talking to stakeholders across D.C. and working hard on this pilot proposal, so it is great to hear from those working on these issues on a daily basis that this pilot is not only novel and innovative, but it is feasible in DC right now, ” said Conroy.

The students first took action in response to statistics showing that, despite economic growth in the District of Columbia that has grabbed headlines in recent years, high unemployment rates – in some cases double the citywide average – persist and remain overlooked in certain wards.

Pointing to a previous study that identified a lack of fundamental skills such as functional literacy and numeracy as crucial stumbling blocks for many of the city’s poorest residents, the team endeavored to create an accessible and proactive hub for residents who have been left behind to become competitive in the workforce.

The team ultimately chose libraries to host their project, given that libraries are bedrock community institutions with existing resources and the potential for additional ones.

“Throughout the development of our proposal our team met with D.C. government officials and nonprofits working in the city to better understand the challenges facing D.C. and seek feedback, and I think our proposal reflects this,” said Berkowitz.

The students, as emerging policy leaders, described the skills and lessons learned throughout the process.  

“This experience offered us the opportunity to engage in human-centered design thinking as a method to developing a tangible policy solution for a community in Washington, DC,” said Lyons. “The lessons we gleaned from this process have been invaluable, as both policy students and residents of this city.”

“As a public policy student, this project has affirmed how important it is to learn from people who do this work on a daily basis,” added Berkowitz. “It will make our work that much more informed and responsive.”

The Public Policy Challenge, now in its third year, is held by McCourt to enable students to put policy theory into practice and provide an avenue to winning teams to advance to the national competition in Philadelphia.

The previous two winners of the McCourt Challenge included a proposal in 2016 to develop a workshop that teaches forgiveness and reconciliation to high-risk Latino youth in the District of Columbia and an idea in 2015 for a mobile-based application aimed at addressing absenteeism and poor performance in Math and English in middle schools.