The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Niche political and policy tracks instill a mission into grad students

Jonathan W. Hutto, 37, is pursuing a Ph.D. in the black politics track in Howard University’s political science graduate program. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

UCLA graduate Tony Mastria wanted to make a difference by fighting poverty and homelessness, and he thought the path to doing so meant law school. But the closer Mastria got to enrolling, the more he sensed a mismatch.

“I think the default for political science students is to go to law school,” he says. “As I looked into my options, I realized that law school was just not a good fit for the types of things that I want to do with my life.”

Instead, the 23-year-old enrolled in the master of public administration program at George Washington University, which he bills as “an MBA for the public sector.”

So Mastria’s not studying statutes or learning to argue in court. He’s learning the administrative skills he will need to influence policy.

The program is just one of several in the D.C. area that is offering a more unconventional route to making a difference in the policy world.

American University, for example, offers an “applied politics” track within its master’s in public policy program that allows students to dive deeper into political-campaign management and lobbying. It also offers a track on women in politics.

Similarly, there is a black politics track in Howard University’s graduate program in political science. It’s known around the country not just as a center for students interested in African-American political movements, but as a program that instills a sense of mission in students, says Jonathan W. Hutto, 37.

“In a more general political science program, there is a strong focus on getting published,” says Hutto, a second-year doctoral student in the program, which also offers a master’s track. “But the focus of the black politics track is not so much about meeting the demands of the academy.”

Hutto is planning to become a professor, while many of his colleagues are aiming for jobs in local and federal government, including the Foreign Service. Hutto says the grounding in black politics helps them serve as public administrators, because the program’s emphasis gives them historic context.

“We look at how past ideologies are relevant today,” he says, meaning how political movements — say, for example, abolition or civil rights — relate to modern problems.

Professor Lorenzo Morris has been teaching in the black politics track since 1982. He says many students drift to the program because of their interest in the global African experience and tend to go on to careers in social and foreign policy.

“Most students in public policy areas have to define the [larger policy] issues,” Morris says, noting that the program is designed to encourage critical thinking. Such skills then help students address those problems and expand their positions.

The program also takes advantage of Washington as the backdrop for Howard’s campus. Students seek out internships in the city and take a class that focuses specifically on D.C. politics.

GW’s public administration program similarly connects students to potential employers in the area while exposing them to tracks in public service that they may not have previously considered.

One example is a course on sustainable transportation taught by visiting professor Nancy Augustine. It focuses on how governments can alleviate traffic snarls in cities like Washington with innovative programs such as ride sharing.

As a class project, students had to pick an intersection in D.C. that drove them crazy and suggest a solution. One group picked the meeting point for Adams Morgan and U Street, where students said pedestrians routinely ignore the poorly timed walk signals that connect Florida Avenue NW with 18th, U and Vernon streets NW. Their solution: Reduce the number of crosswalks and use an iron fence to block off the intersection’s central island for a rain garden.

“We read about theory and skills, but until you talk about how it applies and how it works out in the real world, the world is flat to the students,” Augustine says.

The nation’s capital is particularly suited for the class because of the many jurisdictional intersections here: Some roads belong to the federal government, others to the National Park Service, and they all have to work with the District Department of Transportation to ensure a seamless experience for drivers.

The practical example helps students see how their graduate degrees will translate into real-world solutions, says Mastria, a research assistant for Augustine.

“The whole program is very focused on practicality and making real-world use of the skills you develop,” he adds. “This program would be a good fit for anyone who’s interested in moving the needle.”