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Students introduced to policy work in Midwest through University partnership

George Kaiser Family Foundation to match students with Oklahoma nonprofits

While internships and other University initiatives send students to many cities around the United States and abroad, few students from coastal colleges like Brown spend their summers living and working in the country’s heartland. In an effort to change this pattern, the Swearer Center for Public Service and the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs will begin sending students to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for internships in partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation, said Ken Levit ’87, executive director of GKFF.

Beginning this summer, the Swearer Center will place three to five undergraduate students in service and policy-related internships at Tulsa-based nonprofit partners of GKFF, said Jennifer Romano, a program consultant at the Swearer Center. The students will receive stipends sponsored by GKFF for their work, Levit said. For this summer, the program received 18 applications, Romano wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

Starting next fall, GKFF will fund half of the tuition for up to two graduate students to complete the Master of Public Affairs program in exchange for two years of work at a Tulsa-based non-profit organization after graduation, said Carrie Nordlund, associate director of public policy at the Watson Institute and senior administrator of the MPA program. In their spring semester, the two MPA students will also spend their 12-week consultancy — an MPA requirement — working in Tulsa, Nordlund added.

GKFF is a philanthropic organization funded by George Kaiser, a businessman active in the Tulsa community, Levit said. The foundation supports a range of initiatives aimed at ensuring “equal opportunity for all children,” including early childhood education, maternal health and community revitalization. Students from the University will work on projects that best suit their interests, Levit added.

Levit raised the idea of a partnership between the University and GKFF when he returned to College Hill last year for a reunion marking the 30th anniversary of his graduation from the University. “I put out my hand and (the University) put out theirs,” Levit said. “Things came to fruition really quickly.”

Romano and Nordlund recently traveled to Tulsa to meet with Levit and GKFF’s nonprofit partners. “There wasn’t any part of Tulsa that we drove through that the foundation hadn’t touched in some way,” Nordlund said. “The scope of the work they’re doing — the impact — was unbelievable.”

Tulsa “has greater than its fair share of poverty and incarceration and teen pregnancy and poor health,” Levit added. “It is also a very attractive city with a very strong philanthropic and non-profit sector … (as well as) some strong anchor employers and a good number of emerging companies.”

Nordlund noted that students interested in doing impactful work may be drawn to a city of Tulsa’s size. “In cities like Providence and Tulsa and Kansas City, you could have (an) impact there much more quickly … than you could have at the federal level,” Nordlund said.

Eric Patashnik, professor of political science and director of the public policy program, similarly described Tulsa as an excellent place for students to launch an impactful career in public service, adding that Washington, D.C., is not the only possible destination. “Some of the most important developments in problem-solving (and) in evidence-based decision-making (are) happening in state and local governments around the United States today,” he added.

Levit described the partnership as a “win-win-win” for Tulsa, for students from the University and for the country. Tulsa will benefit from the presence of “dynamic and talented” students working on meaningful projects, Levit said. He also emphasized the value of higher education institutions — especially those on the East and West Coasts — developing “deeper relationships with the middle of our country.”

“Look at our elections and the divided results between the coasts and the heartland and the lack of dialogue that takes place between people of different opinions and perspectives,” Levit said. “There is a gulf that needs to be better connected.”

“After the 2016 election, there was a recognition that there are too few young professionals who are connected to exciting developments outside the coasts,” Patashnik said. In its new partnership with GKFF, Patashnik said the University is recognizing that students interested in public service should consider living and working in inland cities.

“It’s the kind of thing that we need more of in the United States today,” Patashnik added. “Not only will (Tulsa) have the talent of Brown students for several years, but the hope is that some of them will stick.”

For students working in Tulsa, “the experience overall will be different than many of the internship opportunities in Providence or in some of the more typical cities where students intern,” Romano said. “In my experience working with students, they often talk about getting out of the ‘Brown Bubble,’ and I think this will provide that to them.”


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