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Michigan State University

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Sarah Smock
Health Policy and Agriculture Advisor, Michigan Senate Majority Policy Office
PTCD, IR '12

February 23, 2016

Age: 25

Location: Lansing, Michigan

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First, tell us a bit about your time at MSU.

What initially drew you to James Madison College?

My love for politics. I grew up as a conservative in a very liberal town just north of San Francisco. In high school I interned for the Marin County Republican Party. My political beliefs were in a constant state of war between what I truly believed and what I was being told in school. Small classes to learn about Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy seemed to be the perfect place to further understand the polarization of political ideology that I experienced throughout my childhood. And it was. It helped me further understand and refine my beliefs and values.

What was one of the biggest challenges you faced as a Madison student? How did you overcome it?

Balancing what I believed, what I read, and what my fellow students were saying. The debate that takes place in James Madison classes is the most challenging and most rewarding part of being a Madison student. It was a constant challenge for my traditional political views to be debated, but it ultimately refined my positions and made me a better thinker and writer.

Did you do an internship while you were at JMC? A study abroad program? How did those experiences contribute to your professional development?  

I had three different internships with state government and I studied abroad in Turkey, Belgium, and Italy. The internships taught me what I enjoyed (policy) and didn't enjoy (constituent relations) and helped refine my career goals. Studying abroad is an eye opening opportunity that I encourage everyone to experience.

Did you have any professional mentors (faculty, staff, etc.) while you were a student at MSU? How did you seek them out/connect with them? What influence did they have on your career path and/or professional identity? 

My boss at the House Republican Policy Office was my biggest mentor throughout my senior year at MSU. He understood the professional environment as well as my background and goals and advised me accordingly. He was the one who encouraged me not to apply to law school, go to DC after graduation, and come back to work for a State Senator. He knew my background and goals of getting into policy needed experience, not another degree. I would have been pretty lost without him. 

We’d love to learn more about how your career path has developed

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?

I was a scheduler for a State Senator. After interning several times throughout college, I had several people calling the Senator to put in a good word for me. It’s much easier to get a job when the people you will likely work with already know you and your work.

Can you talk a little bit about what the transition out of college and into the workplace looked like for you? What were some of the challenges? What did you do to overcome those challenges?

An undergraduate education is a frightening experiment in return on investment. After spending four years and thousands of dollars, you need a job! I remember the fear and uncertainty at graduation wondering if life was going to work out. It does. After graduation I went to Washington D.C. as a Koch Summer Fellow and intern for the American Legislative Exchange Council. That was two months - then I was unemployed. With a few weeks left of my fellowship, the scheduling job in Michigan opened up. I applied and went through phone interviews and was ultimately offered the position - with no lapse in employment. That was a relief, but scheduling was not my dream job. So I continued to follow my passion for policy, which ultimately led me to the Senate Majority Policy Office. 

What sparked your interest in your current line of work? Did you expect to be in your current role back when you graduated from MSU? What do you find exciting/interesting about the field you’re working in? 

I thought I was going to be a foreign diplomat stationed in Turkey. Or at least that's what I thought I wanted. Until I interned for the House Republican Policy Office, I wanted to focus more on my IR degree after my incredible experiences abroad. In House Policy, my views changed. What truly sparked my interest in my current career was the ability to learn so much about so many different issues and actually affect change for a community I truly care about – Michigan. That was when I decided I wanted to focus on domestic policy. Health Policy found me in Washington D.C. and I just stuck with it. I absolutely love that in my current role I get to learn something new every day.

How do you set yourself apart in the workplace? 

Always go above and beyond. Basketball analogies are big in my family, and my dad always told me to touch the line during wind sprints. On the worst days at work, it is most important to carefully and deliberately deliver quality work.

What personal characteristics would you say have contributed to your success thus far? 

Anxiety. 

I'm only half kidding. I'm actually imagining one of those little characters from the Disney movie "Inside Out." When controlled properly, anxiety can be an incredible tool in propelling you forward. It gets you to work on time. It helps you meet deadlines. It makes you more responsive to general inquiries. It keeps your ambition fueled. Learn to convert anxious energy into productive energy and success will surely follow. 

What professional goals are you still working toward? 

They are ever-changing. Eventually I would like to work on health policy for a think tank.

What insight(s) can you offer to someone thinking about pursuing a career path like yours?

Look around you. What do you see? Public policy is everywhere and it's all interconnected. If you look around and see something that incites your passion or interest, how would you change it? I think looking at the world that way can make for a very successful career in public policy. 

What one piece of career-related wisdom can you offer to JMC’s current students?

Keep an open mind, take pride in everything you do, and treat everyone with respect.

How about a few fun questions now?

What advice can you offer to JMC students and recent graduates who aren’t sure what professional direction they want to take in life?

Accept every opportunity with grace and be kind to everyone you meet. Post-graduation can be a scary time, but one opportunity leads to another opportunity and next thing you know you've made a career for yourself. It might not be what your five-year-old self envisioned, but take pride in your success. 

What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received? The worst? 

Best: Take the three point shot. As a kid, when I was playing basketball, my dad would always tell me to take the three point shot. That advice carried over to my professional life and what it really meant: Never let fear of failure get in the way of success. You might not be the biggest man on the court, or the smartest one in the room, but never shy away from that challenge. 

Worst: Work is for a paycheck – leave passion for your hobbies.

What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self? 

Believe in the power of an open mind and let the world surprise you. Experiences shape values and values shape opinions. Do your best to understand other's experiences and goals. More often than not, we all share the same goal of improving the world. Find common ground there. 

Go-to coffee order? 

Mocha.