Where Policies Meet the People

MPP student’s internship in China takes policy from abstract ideas to real world

Sasser at BlackboardAfter graduating from Duke in 1993, MPP Candidate Elizabeth Sasser spent her summer vacations fighting poverty. Her volunteer efforts to help build and repair homes for impoverished families took her from Appalachia to Mexico City. In 2005 she returned to Duke to gain the analytical skills that would prepare her to create change at the policy level.

This summer, Sasser completed a month-long internship in China that gave her a chance to see first-hand how education policies affect rural and migrant families. The experience prepared her to better advocate for these populations and renewed her commitment to working with disenfranchised communities.

“My internship was vastly different from my first-year core courses, yet both are policy-oriented,” Sasser said. “It was helpful to learn there’s more to policy work than working in an office. I think it is important to spend time in the communities that our policies impact, to see how families and communities are affected.”

Growing up in Washington, D.C., surrounded by politics and policymakers, Sasser developed a passion for helping people who have little or no access to opportunity. Before starting the MPP program, she spent three years working in Beijing and learning to speak Chinese. She also traveled across Asia, which sparked her interest in global policy.

When Associate Professor of PPS and Director of Graduate Studies Fritz Mayer connected Sasser with Dream Corps, she discovered work that combined all of her interests. Founded by Sanford Institute graduate Xing Hu, Dream Corps sends volunteers to isolated areas of China each summer to help bring access to information, technology and resources.

Sasser in Library“China is growing so fast, but it’s unequal growth,” Sasser said. “Dream Corps is focused on improving learning and development opportunities in rural China, where many communities are being left behind.”

Sasser began working with the organization last semester as a volunteer officer, coordinating recruitment and managing the summer 2006 volunteer program. Today she is vice president of communications and fundraising.

While in China, she coordinated a four-day training session in Beijing for 35 Dream Corps volunteers, then traveled south 20 hours by train, to the Hunan village of Dizhou. There she and five other volunteers spent three weeks creating a library for the Lingfang Central Elementary School and Middle School. Their work involved soliciting donations for books, cataloguing them and training a local teacher to run the library. They also awarded scholarships to six students, ages 10 to 15, who were either handicapped or without parents to help pay for their education.

“Some Dizhou families have an annual income of $250, so they can’t afford to send their children to school,” Sasser said. “The cost of elementary school each year is approximately $90, and government assistance usually amounts to $10 or less.”

Sasser, who is also working with Rep. David Price’s office to find ways the federal government can increase the retention of qualified teachers, was surprised to see the extent to which education policies affected the children in Dizhou.

MPP student’s internship in China takes policy from abstract ideas to real world“It sounds obvious, but when you see the needs and problems are not abstract, you see the value of building infrastructure and allocating resources to education,” Sasser said. “You see why we need to give more resources to teachers and communities and why it’s imperative that we create good education policies.”

Despite cultural differences, the relationships Sasser formed with Dizhou citizens were the highlight of her work in China.

“We were only there a month, but we were able to make a big impact. People were so grateful for what we did,” she said. “I’ll always draw on this experience as a reminder of the work that needs to be done to bridge the divide between those that have a lot and those that have very little.”

The Sanford Institute Internship Fund, which consists of money raised by first year MPP and PIDP students that is matched by the university, helped pay for Sasser’s internship.