Alumna Helps Adapt Public Policy Course

By Haleigh Ehmsen ’16

Michelle Fitzgerald Abiyaghi ’06 was washing dishes one night, reflecting on the political climate, when she wondered what it would be like to re-take her American Public Policy course 15 years later. 

Abiyaghi was a religious studies and political science double major during her years at Saint Mary’s and went on to have a career in consulting before making the decision to stay home full time with her children. With her late night thoughts, she took to the Department of Political Science’s Facebook group and posed the question to her fellow alumnae: “What would it be like to take Professor Pat Pierce’s American Public Policy in 2020 and would it help to make sense of the current political chaos?”

To her surprise, many alumnae commented their support and wondered how to make it happen. Patrick Pierce, PhD, professor emeritus of political science, also commented, agreeing that it would be interesting to explore how the policy making process has changed. Abiyaghi and Pierce worked together on the logistics of registering interested alumnae, inviting current students, and organizing Zoom sessions.

The early sessions garnered the interest of more than 90 alumnae from classes of 1982–2016 all with diverse careers in various levels of government, public service, and the private sector. Several current students also joined. Throughout their time, participants learned that just as social media facilitated this opportunity to re-teach the public policy class and to apply theory to the current political climate, so, too, has social media impacted the policy making process. 

The class currently consists of a group of 15-20 and continues to meet regularly, each bringing their unique lived experiences that often counter the original theory taught in the course 15 years ago.

As he did in his original classroom course, Pierce, pictured here, provides the theoretical basis for understanding the politics of the policy process, and the group discusses contemporary issues, using the same basic syllabus for the policy course, and highlighting changes that have occurred. They often discuss the “echo chambers” that social media create, meaning that we can  choose to “friend” and “unfriend” individuals whose posts align with our own beliefs, and how this impacts our political understanding. Abiyaghi notes that the policy making process has been impacted by the polarization that is affecting almost every political issue including healthcare, finance, race, etc.

Pierce said he is proud of the women involved and always appreciates hearing everyone’s contributions, as well as how much they have learned and grown since their time at Saint Mary’s. “I always get way more out of our sessions than I imagine they do,” he said. 

For Abiyaghi, the course has helped her to make sense of political chaos while uniting her with fellow alumnae who are also thinking deeply about the same issues. 

“I have so much more clarity,” Abiyaghi said. “It is everything I wanted it to be and more. There’s something about being in this group of women who care deeply about what is happening in our world but also share the bond of Saint Mary’s. There’s concern but we also want to understand and take the extra time to get at the root of the world around us.” 

Pierce and Abiyaghi plan to continue these sessions in 2021. The Zoom sessions of the course have been recorded and are available for viewing here


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