Phoenix Rice-Johnson is one of 43 recipients of the 2018 Marshall Scholarship, which provides the opportunity to study at any university in the United Kingdom for outstanding young Americans. She is a 2016 UW Alum with majors in International Studies and Political Science and a certificate in South Asian Studies. She is planning to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at King’s College London. After graduation, she worked at the Brennan Center for Justice as a research and program associate.
How did you find out about the scholarship opportunity?
I knew about the Marshall through the Office of Undergraduate Academic Awards. I had previously worked with that office to apply for the Truman Scholarship, and I found out about the Marshall that way. I had no plan to apply, but after working for a couple of years I realized what a great opportunity it was and decided to apply.
What made you decide to study in the UK and King’s College London?
The UK is considering or implementing many of the same restrictive voting laws – such as voter IDs – I have been working to combat in my time working at the Brennan Center and before. I thought it would be interesting to see how these laws are being piloted in the UK, and to research ways in which they are being fought by local activists. The public policy degree at King’s college allows one to intern while you pursue your degree, and I figured being in London would put me close to the types of advocacy agencies that I might want to intern with. Overall, it is where all the pieces fit together for what I wanted to do.
What was the application process like? Did you have to apply for Marshall Scholarship and the King’s College London at the same time? Was King’s College London the only option?
The Marshall is extremely flexible, and for the most part the Marshall will cover any university in the UK, including in Scotland and Northern Ireland. You first apply for the Marshall and detail which program you would like to go to, and then, if you receive the scholarship, the Marshall submits your materials to your preferred university.
The application requires a personal statement, a leadership essay, an essay about your proposed program, and an essay about your “ambassadorial potential.” You submit your application and if you are selected as a finalist, you interview at a regional panel. I flew to Chicago to interview in the mid-west region. I found out later that day that I was selected!
What resources at UW-Madison did you find helpful?
My most formative experience was serving as chair of the College Democrats of Wisconsin. It was my first time leading something. I learned a lot about myself and the leadership style that I wanted to embody. I was used to always deferring to the person above me in organizations, and that person was usually a man who made decisions more unilaterally. However, serving as chair of College Democrats of Wisconsin, I discovered a different type of leadership style that worked for me — one that was more collaborative and that relied more heavily on my peers. I also served as the public defender for the Associated Students of Madison. I learned a bit about legal advocacy in that position and it helped concretize my interest in the law.
In addition, I always took advantage of the writing center. I also did the UW Summer in D.C. as a junior. That opportunity was helpful, and it gave me internship experience in D.C. [Learn about the UW in Washington D.C. Program and hear from returned students about their experience]
Drafting a senior thesis under the supervision of Professor David Canon was a valuable experience because it required that I believe in my ability to develop skills I did not already have. I learned to use Stata and analyze regressions as I was writing my thesis. I remember sitting in the Political Science Graduate School lounge running regressions, and then peeking my head into Prof. Canon’s office and trying to figure out what they meant. Completing that big of a project without any deadline besides the one at the very end helped me learn to be self-motivated and to trust myself. UW was instrumental in providing me with a grant for that research so that I could afford to do that intense of a research project.
Lastly, double-majoring in International Studies and Political Science with a certificate in South Asian Studies, I took a honors seminar with Prof. Barry Burden on election law and learned a lot about our outdated voting system in that course. It was interesting to learn about how things we take for granted – like our voting machines – are quite contentious.
What have you done since graduation?
At the Brennan Center, I work as a research and program associate on the Voting Rights and Elections team. As my title indicates, I help with our research efforts. Oftentimes, I am staffed on a report, where I help with preliminary research, cite checking, source collection, and layout and design. I am one of the primary researchers who tracks voting legislation introduced in the states – we use that data to publish an analysis called the voting laws roundup, and that report informs many of our advocacy efforts. [Find more professional experiences on her LinkedIn]
What are you expecting to study at King’s College London?
I expect to receive a Master’s in Public Policy. The coursework will likely be broad, with mandatory classes in statistics and research methods. I know there are some electives that may be more specific, and of course, my dissertation will allow me to delve into whatever topic I want to research.
What is your plan after your Master’s program?
After the Marshall, I don’t know exactly what I’ll do. I am doing a 1-year Marshall specifically so that I can be back in the United States in time for the 2020 election. I may work directly on a political campaign; otherwise, I’m interested in doing some type of direct service or organizing work. I am considering eventually going to law school and think doing some direct-service work would help anchor that experience.
What advice do you have for students who want to get into the similar type of careers?
Everyone knows everyone in politics — and that extends to the nonprofit world too. You do not have to be the best or the smartest, but you should do your best to maintain a positive attitude and say nice things about other people. Some career advice I got early on was, “if someone asks ‘does anyone want to clean this coat closet?,’ be the first one in the room to volunteer.” Obviously, don’t sell your skills short, but sometimes we forgot how early we are in our careers and how much we have to learn. You’re not too important for the grunt work, and even if you are, do it with enthusiasm and you’ll get noticed and elevated to more important projects.
You also never want to be the intern who tries to undercut other people, because your peers will remember, and two years out of graduation, they will be in a position to hire you. As someone who hires interns now, supervising someone who is sincere and asks many questions is much more impressive to me than someone who tries to talk a lot or sound smart.
My other piece of advice is get work experience or internship experience! Grades are important, and I get that many folks have to work paying jobs to survive, but to the degree possible, find internship experiences while you are an undergraduate. An internship or paid part time work in a government office, non-profit, etc. is what employers are looking for on your resume. They want to see that you can work in a professional environment and juggle multiple tasks and personalities. Being a fabulous writer and having original thoughts about game theory is a surprisingly bad indicator of whether or not you will be a good entry-level employee.
Interview conducted and written by Soeun Lee, a Communication Intern in the IS Major Office.